How international students navigate the social and academic practices of a South African university

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The aim of this thesis is to qualitatively explore how international students navigated the social and academic practices of a South African university. A sample of thirteen students was selected from the Humanities faculty at the University of Cape Town, each of whom was a visiting student for either one semester or a full academic year. Participants volunteered for one-hour, face-to-face interviews which were tape-recorded for later analysis. The interviews were semi-structured, as the author hoped to elicit particular critical moments in the student's study-abroad journey. Two groups of students were sought for purposes of validation and comparison: Group 1 consisted of nine American students; Group 2 consisted of four students from other countries. The focus, however, was primarily upon the experiences of the students from the U.S. The theoretical framework for the study was drawn from the work of social theorists James Gee and Pierre Bourdieu. Their interest in the differential distribution of power in the social world - particularly within academia - and in how the individual gains or loses power as s/he moves in that world provided helpful frames for exploring how international students negotiated often unfamiliar contexts encountered while studying abroad. To operationalize the theoretical framework, Anthony Giddens' concept of "fateful moments" was utilized. Following other researchers, the concept was altered to "critical moments." Critical moments are moments in a subject's narrative which cause disjunctures to arise in the life journey; they are moments of crisis which demand navigational choices to be made. In analysis of the data, these moments were located either by the interviewee's identification or the author's interpretation. In order to aid analysis practices were split into two domains: social and academic. Data was then clustered according to themes which arose in the interviews. In relation to social practices, common themes were related to "with whom to socialize" and to national and racial identities. American students in particular were deliberate in stating their intent to meet "local" students and to create distance from other Americans. Issues related to national and racial identity arose strongly across all of the interviews and influenced both their practices as well as those of "local" students. In relation to academic practices, themes related to academic support, academic expectations, and tacit academic procedures were predominant. When faced with unknown practices students often engaged in a compare-and-contrast activity, drawing upon known practices from their home institutions to serve as the standard by vhich ncv practiccs were judged. However, although splitting practices into two domains was helpful for analysis, students' practices often cut across them. For example, issues related to national and racial identity often occurred both in and out of the classroom. Based on the findings of this thesis as well as the literature, the author concludes with suggestions for future study-abroad programmes. Specifically, hc focuses upon the pre-orientation component of such programmes, suggesting that students may be more fully prepared to engage their study-abroad experience by being introduced to a particular perspective of the social world based on the social theories of Gee and Bourdieu.

Includes bibliographical references (leaves 68-75).