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Academic Stress

Chinese culture has gained worldwide recognition for the pursuit of academic achievement of their young (Aldwin and Greenberger 1987). Traditional Chinese culture places well-educated scholars in the highest social rank. Academic achievement is also an honor to the family. Dedication to scholarship becomes not only a personal goal but also a culture goal for Chinese international students. Succeeding academically was overwhelmingly identified as the greatest concern and primary goal of Chinese international students. Many Chinese students in this study indicated they study harder and devote most of their time to schoolwork than the average American student. They also acknowledged that because of their own devotion to academic excellence, they were socially isolated and had few other interests and recreations.

The interview findings confirmed the results regarding the motivation of students’ hard work from quantitative surveys. The most frequently identified motivators were “good grades bring a feeling of self-esteem and self-worth,” “education is the only hope for social acceptance and financial security in the United States,” and “high expectation and sacrifice from parents.” Students spoke about exceptional pressure placed on them by their families’ and cultures’ expectations to excel academically. Because of the influence of Confucianism, scholars are accorded high privilege and social status in Chinese society. Chinese parents place great emphasis on the academic achievement of their children. Most Chinese students who were interviewed stated that from their families’ point of view, working very hard at their educational achievement and receiving higher degrees from the United States bring honor to the family. In addition, in many Chinese students’ eyes, an

American degree is a guarantee of social and economic ascent either in China or in the United States.

Also, for some students, high parental expectations and constant pressure to do well in school and the fear of failure create extreme stress and anxiety. In their eyes, failure not only brings disgrace to the person concerned but also to the family and to some extent their ethnic group. For others, since attaining an advanced degree is a major way for them to achieve higher status in China or to pursue their dreams in the United States, the potential negative consequences of academic failure are considerable.

When identifying the sources of academic stress, quantitative study showed the classroom interaction (speaking up, making presentations, and asking questions) (M = 3.01, SD = 1.71) and academic paper writing (M = 2.73, SD = 1.08) rank highest among all the stress sources. Supporting survey findings, interview transcriptions indicated that the most frequently mentioned academic stressors are classroom interactions and academic writing, which are followed by the student- advisor relationship and adjustment to American academic settings. Just as a student commented:

Every Chinese student is very concerned these problems: How do you act in the classroom?

How do you participate in the discussion? How do you ask questions? How do you talk to

your professors? How do you interact with your academic advisors? (Participant 19)

As for the strategies used to overcome the academic challenges, interview findings were largely consistent with survey findings. For instance, consistent with survey findings, interview transcriptions showed that “spending more time and efforts on study to enhance academic strength” and “seeking insights or suggestions from friends or classmates” are Chinese students’ preferred strategies. A small disparity between survey findings and interview results, however, has been detected. Although survey findings showed that “increasing reading after class to compensate for weaknesses in listening comprehension during lectures” and “anticipating and preparing to avoid potential problems” were less frequently used strategies, interview transcriptions revealed Chinese students used them very often. Students who were interviewed reported that they spent a lot of time outside of class reading books and other related materials. They claimed that this process helped them to fill in the gaps they experienced during lectures. They also said that they anticipated and tried to prevent some situations from occurring. Eight Chinese students anticipated that they would have problems communicating with a faculty member due to their English skills. To prevent miscommunication from happening, these students wrote down what they were going to say and memorized the words before the meeting.

Previous studies found that the English proficiency is a stumbling block for many Chinese students; a lack of English proficiency is the greatest barrier in their academic adjustment process. In this study, language barrier and communication problems were identified as great stressors both by students who completed the questionnaire and by the students who were interviewed. When asked what factors accounted for their language difficulties, participants who were interviewed reported that lack of contextual knowledge or cultural background, infrequent chances to practice English, and inadequate language training were the most significant factors. These results were consistent with quantitative findings. In addition, respondents especially mentioned that the English trainning they received in China often was designed to enable them to pass the standardized test like the TOEFL or the GRE, widely required for admission to graduate programs in the United States. This type of langauge trainning often failed to adequately help them meet the academic demands of their programs and rarely prepared them for the subtleties of social interaction. Many of them indicated that while they achieved extra high score on the TOEFL or the GRE, they still have had great difficulty in understanding and communicating in English.

Students also expressed there is a tension between their desire to improve their spoken English and their need to communicate freely in Chinese. Just as a female student summarized:

It is just a cycle of stress and frustration. In the hope of improving my English language skills, I sought out opportunities and initiate communications with Americans. However, it is difficult to engage in successful communication with Americans due to my language deficiency and cultural deficiencies. After many “communication breakdowns” or “communciaiton disruptions,” I became frustrated and tened to retreat back to my “Chinese circle.” Then I increasingly interacted with Chinese students. It is so much easier to express thoughts and feelings in Chinese. I enjoyed talking in Chinese with fellow Chinese students, but at the same time I felt guilty since my English language profiencey has not improved as expected. Over the years, the tension between improving my English skills and connecting interpersonally and intrapersonlly through one’s native language still huants me and makes me feel stressed. (Participant 18)

Regarding the strategies used to deal with language difficulties, confirming the survey findings, the follow-up interviews indicated that Chinese students prefer using circumlocution, approximation, and self-solving (e.g., practice language). Students reported that they used the strategy of circumlation when they did not know a particular English word or forgot the word they wanted to say.

A male electrical engineering student said:

I think the circumlation strategy is very effective, especially when I do not know much English vocabulary, but I still want to express an idea clearly. I used this strategy very often when I talked about my major with my professors or my collegues. For example, I needed an electronic equipment for my lab research, but I do not know the English name for the equipment, so I tried to explain what I wanted to get first and decribed the scenario in detail until the staff got what I wanted. (Participant 7)

Participants also reported they “often” or “always” used the strategy of “approximation” in their daily lives. Most of them believe this strategy to be effective. When they could not remember the exact word or find the appropriate translation of the word they intended to say, they chose to use another word which shared a similar meaning. Some of participants described this strategy as follows:

I think this strategy is effective. I called “cow” instead of “bison” or “buffalo.” I called “veal” “beef.” Sometimes it is important; if you do not do that, you have no way to communicate. (Participant 15)

Some of Chinese students, however, were aware of that approximation strategy could not help them express their ideas very precisely. For instance, a student pointed out:

Approximation just lets somebody understand, but in many cases, it is not precise. It is okay for daily talking, but not good for academics. For instance, I could not find an appropriate word to substitute for the word “culture shock” when I first got here. So, many times, my professors were confused by what I tried to say. (Participant 2)

Besides language barrier, the relationship with academic advisors was also identified as very important to Chinese international students. Students regarded their advisors as the link to the university and their future career. In spite of this, Chinese international students were reluctant to initiate a conversation with their professors, as they were unsure of the norms of student and professor interaction and relationship.

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