Exploring international student adaptation through a first-year experience course at Iowa State University

Dorsett, James
Major Professor
Linda S. Hagedorn
Committee Member
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Although considerable research has been conducted on the adjustment of international students to U.S universities and culture, as well as research on first-experience courses, little research is available on the impacts of first-year experience courses on international student adjustment. This dissertation focuses on how a first-year experience course affected the student adaptation of new undergraduate international students enrolled at Iowa State University for Fall 2015.

Responses from 115 undergraduate international students in this first-year experience course (serving as the treatment group) were compared against 92 other new international students not enrolled in the course (the control group) using an independent measures t-test. The survey included 93 questions divided into 7 demographic questions, as well as 86 questions dispersed among 7 academic, 6 cultural, and 1 satisfaction categories comprising multiple questions each that measured new international students’ academic and cultural adaptation.

Two multiple regression analyses were also conducted using the sample above to determine how well the adaptation categories, which corresponded to concepts from current adaptation literature, predicted academic and cultural adaptation. Responses from 79 students in the first-year experience course were also compared via a repeated measures t-test to their earlier responses in an International First-Year Experience survey conducted as part of the international first-year experience course curriculum.

The themes that emerged are described as (1) academic connection, (2) personal exploration, (3) cultural connection, and (4) cultural empathy. By the end of the Fall 2015 semester, for the students enrolled in the international first-year experience course, both when

compared to the beginning of the semester and against a control group of first-year students not enrolled in the course, significant learning and the beginnings of adaptation had occurred. The course participants tended to be more engaged that their nonparticipant counterparts in their academic programs, more serious about learning, and were more aware of where and how to get help. They also tended to be more involved in social activities, encountered more diversity, and were more willing to venture out and explore U.S. culture.

This study showed that the course tended to best support some student adaptation gains when students engaged with people, especially over points of difference but also when they experienced the culture in a personal way, working to understand the culture. In general, though the course facilitated substantial student learning, which could lead to adaptation over time, the results of the study did not provide strong evidence of substantial academic or cultural adaptation in just three and a half months.

Recommendations for practice and future research included utilizing international first-year experience courses solely for undergraduate international students, including such courses in a comprehensive international student adjustment strategy, incorporating more faculty into teaching those courses, and expanding research into international first-year experience courses to include longer-term studies, as well as making use of qualitative and mixed methods approaches.