P2 – Exploring the Social Relations of International Students

Auditorium – Monday 16:45-17:45

Blair Matthews

Centre for English Language and Foundation Studies, University of Bristol

English for Academic Purposes Tutor, University of Bristol.


The international student experience has had a significant impact on institutions and individuals alike. This paper explores the social experiences of international students during their sojourn and how participants evaluate their social resources during their time abroad.


The growth in the number of non-EU students participating in higher education in the UK has had a significant impact on the character and make-up of university campuses. However, studies on the experiences of international students tend to emphasise the challenges students face, particularly regarding acculturation and adaptation (Sovic, 2008; Sawir et al. 2008; Russell et al., 2010). International students are said to exist in an abstract ‘third space,’ not fully integrated as part of the local culture, yet distanced from their own (Burnapp, 2006; Montgomery, 2010). Nevertheless, the international student experience can be transformational for those who travel abroad to study, both in terms of learning and outlook (Gu, Schweisfurth and Day, 2010).

This paper explores how overseas students negotiate this third space, in particular looking at the relationships that individuals make (or not) and how students manage and evaluate their social resources during their time abroad. In a study of a cohort of international foundation students (n=127) at a large UK university, social network analysis was used to analyse observable changes in social structures at two different points during the sojourn: immediately post-arrival and after 12 weeks. These analyses were supported by a series of in-depth interviews with a sample of students (n=5).

Results show that the movement of individuals from their home country to host country is highly efficient in network terms (1 or 2 steps), but on arrival those connections decay almost immediately. Initial networks are characterised by complexity and intense interaction as participants establish networks in their new environment. After 12 weeks, networks settle down but remain relatively segregated. The resultant social structure can be predicted by home culture and institutional structures such as programme of study and accommodation.

Qualitative interviews suggest that students have a strong desire to make friends and strong feelings towards the relations they make. Interviews also suggest that individuals reflect on their experiences and often make decisions in relational terms. As a consequence, the interaction between social structure (constraints) and agency (individual action) helps to build and elaborate social structures. This paper concludes with a discussion on the role institutions play in shaping social structures, what structures we should encourage and how we can respond.


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