Research brief of “Socioculturally Attuned Understanding of and Engagement With Chinese International Undergraduates”

Citation: Heng, T. T. (2021, February 11). Socioculturally Attuned Understanding of and Engagement With Chinese International Undergraduates. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. Advance online publication.

Abstract: This research brief documents sociocultural reasons for Chinese international students’ challenges and opportunities in U.S. colleges and discusses how to generate more socioculturally attuned understanding of and engagement with (Chinese) international students.

Discourse around internationalization has increasingly shifted towards considering more equitable ways of relating with international students as higher education institutions come under scrutiny for not adequately understanding and supporting international students (Buckner & Stein, 2020; George Mwangi & Yao, 2021). While intercultural competence is a presumed benefit of internationalization, the reality that host and sending communities’ intercultural competence are enhanced with the enrolment of international students is far from imagined (Jin & Schneider, 2019; Yakaboshi et al., 2018; Zhu & Bresnahan, 2018). Given that Chinese international students form the largest international student population worldwide, this study adopts them as an analytic case to explore the importance of understanding international students’ sociocultural contexts. A sociocultural framework foregrounds the influence of society and culture in shaping human learning and behaviour and assumes that humans’ behaviors, attitudes and beliefs are not static (Heng, 2018). This study utilizes a sociocultural framework to uncover the constellation of reasons undergirding Chinese international students’ perceptions of the challenges and opportunities they encounter in U.S. colleges. 

Eighteen first- and second-year students in three U.S. colleges participated in three interviews and completed four journal prompts each over an academic year. Findings revealed a complex interaction of cultural, schooling, and societal demands shaping their challenges in the U.S. Participants alluded to schooling imprints (e.g. exam orientation and teacher-directedness) and  cultural legacies (e.g., authority in hierarchy, community over individual, homogeneity, and “face”) in shaping their tensions around classroom participation, critical thinking, and socialization. Further, they reported that Chinese societal influences, like lower economic development and its practical orientation, constrain their dispositions for philosophical thinking and freedom to choose less traditional paths. Yet, participants stressed that “Chinese students themselves are changing” as they responded to new external environments. 

This study reveals the tensions Chinese international students face as they work with and against expectations of their former and new environments. By foregrounding the complex interplay of societal and cultural forces that shape human behaviors, we are reminded to seek wider and more contextualised reasons to understand international students, thus arresting ethnocentric tendencies we may naturally fall back on. This study also showcases Chinese international students’ strengths, highlighting their ability to adapt to and navigate different environmental expectations revealing dualistic and contextual thinking that is rarely celebrated. Finally, this study discusses ways to leverage the information to create socioculturally attuned engagement with and provision for international students, to foster a more equitable internationalization process. 

About the Author: 

Tang T. Heng is an Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She is the recipient of the Comparative and International Education Society’s Study Abroad and International Students SIG Early Career Award 2019. 


Buckner, E., & Stein, S. (2020). What counts as internationalization? Deconstructing the internationalization imperative. Journal of Studies in International Education, 24(2), 151-166. 

George Mwangi, C. A., & Yao, C. W. (2020). US Higher Education Internationalization Through an Equity-Driven Lens: An Analysis of Concepts, History, and Research. Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research: Volume 36, 1-62.

Heng, T. T. (2018a). Coping strategies of International Chinese Undergraduates in response to academic challenges in U.S. Colleges. Teachers College Record, 120(2), 1–42.

Jin, L., & Schneider, J. (2019). Faculty Views on International Students: A Survey Study. Journal of International Students, 9(1), 84–96. https://

Yakaboski, T., Perez-Velez, K., & Almutairi, Y. (2018). Breaking the silence: Saudi graduate student experiences on a US campus. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 11(2), 221–238. 

Zhu, Y., & Bresnahan, M. (2018). “They make no contribution!” versus “We should make friends with them!”—American domestic students’ perception of Chinese international students’ reticence and face. Journal of International Students, 8(4), 1614–1635. 

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