International Graduate Students: Social Networks and Language Use

By Moglen, Daniel | Journal of International Students, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

International Graduate Students: Social Networks and Language Use


Moglen, Daniel, Journal of International Students


Brian, a first-year international graduate student from China, presented in the first-quarter ESL class in a clear, well-organized manner, and exuded confidence while he spoke. By all measures, his presentation combined with the other academic work that he produced indicated that he was on the track to academic success. I came to realize that, as the instructor of the class, it was not entirely clear to me how the presentation skills learned in my class would transfer to other academic classes, and in which ways this class would contribute to the overall language development of my students. Additionally, I later found out in an interview with Brian that he was socially isolated and not integrating easily into the local culture. Studies have suggested that international students ought to make more native English speaking (NES) friends (see Liu 2011); however, there are other viable social strategies, as this study will show. Brian was just one of the approximately one hundred international graduate students that were enrolled in this ESL class. What were the students' social and academic experiences outside of this class? How were the academic writing and presentation skills that they learned in this class being applied in their other academic classes? These were some of the questions that drove this research project.

There is a growing trend in American universities of recruiting and admitting an increasing number of international students, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. In fact, according to Open Doors (2012), there are over 700,000 international students in the United States, and about half of them are at the graduate level. At the university where the current research project was conducted, international students make up over 20% of the entire graduate student population, where in some fields, such as Statistics and Computer Science, the majority of graduate students are now international. The trend seems to show that STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) tend to host the highest amount of international students, followed by social sciences, and lastly humanities, which attracts the fewest number of IGSs (Open Doors 2012). This means that the STEM fields have a distinctly high concentration of IGSs, many of which singularly come from China, which inevitably leads to an increase in opportunities to communicate in their first language (L1) and a decrease in incentive to communicate in English.

The aim of this paper is to shed light on the choices that international graduate students make in terms of developing their social network, which in turn will provide insights regarding factors that influence language learning for this particular group of people. Particularly of importance are these early experiences, from which ultimately may account for not only the wellbeing of the student, but also the likelihood of academic success. I argue that while the social experience of the IGSs will have a great influence on their academic experience and success, it is not necessarily the case that more interactions with NESs is the optimal situation, as some of the literature has suggested.

The research questions for the current study are as follows:

1. How often are first year international graduate students using English in academic and social settings?

2. What kinds of social networks do IGSs form?

3.What are the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of social networks?

LITERATURE REVIEW

While there are numerous studies that examine the social and academic experiences of international undergraduate students, fewer are concerned with international graduate students. The studies that solely look at undergraduate international student issues may have implications for IGSs, but the lack of literature surrounding IGSs suggests that more research needs to be done for this growing population. Of those studies that focus on IGSs, many look at acculturative stress (Constantine, Okazaki, & Utsey, 2004; Lee, Koeske, & Sales, 2004; Mori, 2000; Sandhu & Asrabadi, 1994; Yeh & Inose, 2010), and come from a psychological/counseling perspective rather than a linguistic one. …

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