Rethinking adaptation

In this series of blogs on internationalisation in higher education mental health among international students is an important subject. For example, how do students handle culture shock, the acculturative stress and adaptation challenges? Jessica Price wrote an interesting article about this subject.

She says that despite the fact that many universities see these subjects as part of the “learning curve”, and that students will overcome these mental challenges with time, it is in fact more complex. To quote Price: “In this time of migration movements and increasing international conflict, thousands of students are moving abroad from war zones; or coming from highly violent and politically charged environments; or are themselves minorities which are looked down upon in their own societies.”. Think for example of students from Syrian, Venezuelan decent. This is besides the differences between students from various religious, ethnic or racial minorities.

The question is, what are the responsibilities of the universities here? Knowing that mental health is deeply rooted in cultural contexts. When we talk about mental health, we basically refer to emotional, psychological and social well-being. All these individual aspects are deeply determined by culture.

According to Price what we are looking for here is culturally competent care. The question is, what is in fact culturally competent care? What does this mean? Does it mean the same to everyone? On the individual level of a student we talk about cultural awareness – being sensitive to personal values and biases, cultural knowledge – comprehension of culture and world view, and cultural skills – the ability to intervene in a way that is culturally sensitive and relevant.

In one of my previous blogs on personal motivation I discussed the theory of Bennett. The Bennett Scale shows steps in the development of intercultural sensitivity. It describes different ways in which people can react to cultural differences. There are three stages that are considered ethnocentric followed by three stages that are considered ethnorelative. Ethnocentric means that someone sees his or her own culture as the only reality, ethnorelative means you see another culture from within its own perspectives. When students want to have an international experience, something I highly encourage and recommend, I always prep them for their possible culture shock by using this model. Trying to ensure them a “mentally healthy start”. To me this is an inadmissible step to prepare students of what is to come, and maybe even more so, how their own frame of reference influences their behavior and mental health. This subject is largely related to aspects of language and identity and I will continue on this in my next blog.