International students’ unique challenges – why understanding international transitions to higher education matters

Ecochard, Sidonie and Fotheringham, Julia (2017) International students’ unique challenges – why understanding international transitions to higher education matters. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 5 (2). pp. 100-108. ISSN 2051-9788 (

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International students represent a large and increasing share of the diversity encountered on British campuses, with 19% of the student body coming from another country to study in the United Kingdom. While the concept of transition in the context of Higher Education (HE) is better understood as a process of change and adaptation to the HE culture, international transitions –undertaken by international students – present additional and specific challenges. These involve multiple additional cultural adjustments, to the host nation culture, the international student culture and the subject disciplinary culture. The scale and number of these challenges may lead to mental health issues and to students dropping out. The growing number of international students and their importance as a significant economic driver to the HE sector have been reflected in the literature, with an increasing number of publications on the topic. Various models have been elaborated to describe the process of academic and socio-cultural adjustment experienced by international students, along with concepts of acculturative stress and culture shock used to refer to the sometimes extreme emotional turmoil created by such cultural dissonances. University staff and students have different but key roles and responsibilities in supporting and facilitating international students’ adjustment, improving retention and enabling international students to reach their academic and personal goals in spite of the challenges that confront them. This literature review presents the different stage-models of international students’ acculturation and defines key concepts for international transitions such as acculturative stress and culture shock, thereby allowing for a better understanding of the international students’ academic and social journey. It describes the challenges international students meet in their transition to UK HE institutions and introduces literature identifying ways of better supporting the specific needs of those students. It concludes with a discussion on the limitations of the current international transitions discourse.