An Alternative Theoretical Model: Examining Psychosocial Identity Development of International Students in the United States

Article excerpt

Despite the plethora of college student identity development research, very little attention has been paid to the identity formation of international students. Rather than adopting existing identity theories in college student development, this exploratory qualitative study proposes a new psychosocial identity development model for international students as an alternative theoretical viewpoint. Based primarily on the ethnographic interview data collected from international undergraduate students at a large public institution in the Midwest, the proposed conceptual model, International Student Identity (ISI), consists of six phases: pre-exposure, exposure, enclosure, emergence, integration, and internationalization. A description of each phase is provided and implications for practice and future research are offered as well.

Keywords: international students, psychosocial identity development, cross-cultural adjustment


Given the recent internationalization and globalization that has induced crossborder student mobility around the world (Altbach & Knight, 2007), the inflow of foreign students studying in the American higher education system has remained quite high. Comprising 3.5% of the U.S. higher education enrollment, more than 723,000 international students were enrolled in the United States during the 2010-2011 academic year (Institute of International Education, 2010). Growing visibility of the international student population in American higher education calls for colleges and universities to adequately serve the unique needs of these students. As the number of students studying abroad has substantially increased over the years, much scholarly attention has been paid to the issues and challenges facing international students while adjusting to a new environment (see for example Andrade, 2006; Barratt & Huba, 1994; Chen, 1999; Constantine, et al., 2005; Lee, & Rice, 2007; Lin & Yi, 1997 ; Sheehan & Pearson, 1995; Yi, Lin, & Kishimoto, 2003). Numerous studies have suggested that international students deal with a variety of adjustment concerns when studying and living abroad. These concerns are general living (e.g., adaptation to American food, living environment, transportation, climate, and financial and health care systems), academic (e.g., adapting to a new educational system and foreign language), socio-cultural (e.g., culture shock, discrimination, new social/cultural customs, norms, and regulations) and psychological (e.g., homesickness, feelings of loneliness and isolation, discrimination, and loss of identity) (Tseng & Newton, 2002). However, despite their growing presence, international students are left out of much of the literature on college student development theory in the United States. Over the last few decades, developmental research and theory has expanded with a great deal of attention paid to the areas of learning styles, cognitive thinking, and moral development, along with social identity theories of diverse student populations in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. The (re)construction of identity development plays an integral role in shaping the overall development of college students and their educational experiences during the college years. Several scholars emphasize the importance of identity development in social contexts and suggest that one's sense of self is shaped by how individuals interact with others within the environments (e.g., Erikson, 1959; Gergen, 1991; McEwen, 2003; Torres, Jones, & Renn, 2009). Despite a large volume of literature written on American college student identity development, including specific focus on subpopulations such as African American, Asian American, Latino, biracial, mixed-racial, gay, lesbian, bisexual, female, and male students, international student identity development in American higher education institutions has been largely ignored (Evans, Forney, & Guido-DiBrito, 1998). …


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