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International Education

Module by: Xingbei Ye. E-mail the author

Summary: The purpose of this module is to discuss any issues are associated with international students in the U.S. campuses.

Moving toward self-authorship:

Psychological Development and Culture maturity of International Students

Eva Xingbei Ye

EDLD 712

Dr. James Berry

Eastern Michigan University

Fall 2012


The Open Doors Report (2012) on International Educational Exchange, finds that the number of international students at colleges and universities in the United States increased by six percent to a record high of 764,495 in the 2011/12 academic year. This year, international exchanges in all 50 states contributed $22.7 billion to the U.S. economy. The presence of international students on American university campuses provides an opportunity to promote cultural and international understanding. However, for international students, the reality of being a "foreigner" makes living more difficult in an unfamiliar country. The increased enrollment of international students requires higher education professionals to increase their globalization awareness, and understand how to help international students create a sense of identity that allows them to adapt to college life on American campuses.

International Students in the US

Naturally, issues related to culture and psychological adjustment of international students will significantly affect their academic success and personal life in the new environment. Several authors have attempted to study the nature of psychological problems of international students. In one of the earliest studies concerned about international students, Hull (1978) identified personal depression, homesickness, and loneliness as the major concerns. Other writers postulated the major concerns as high anxiety, stress, frustration, fear, and pessimism (Pedersen, 1991) and perceived alienation and racial discrimination, loneliness, and psychosomatic disorders (Pizzolato, Nguyen, Johnston., & Wang, 2012). Sandhu & Asrabadi (1994) stated that,” research conducted on the psychological problems of international students is isolated, sporadic, inconsistent, varied, and desultory in nature” (p.436).

Cultural and linguistic differences present very real personal and academic challenges to international students. The notion of intercultural, as opposed to cross-cultural experiences which inherently stresses differences and diversity, “encompasses both domestic and international contexts and implies cultures interacting” (King & Baxter Magolda, 2005 ). Studies on international students' intercultural adaptation have reported a range of transitional and adaptive challenges facing these students. Particular stresses that confront overseas students include culture shock, learning shock, language shock and role shock (Gu, 2005). Cushner and Karim (2004) describe a study-abroad experience as ‘a significant transitional event that brings with it a considerable amount of accompanying stress, involving both confrontation and adaptation to unfamiliar physical and psychological experiences and changes”, and those experiences are moderated by the interaction of multiple individual (e.g. age, gender, and ethnicity) and environmental (e.g. social and academic support systems) factors. When successful, intercultural experience can be a transformative learning process which leads to a journey of personal growth and development (Adler, 1975).

When international students arrive at overseas universities, the circumstances suddenly impose a variety of roles that they must be learned. When the requirements of those roles are realistically perceived and effectively learned, the student’s experience is likely to be “successful”, but when the roles are not accommodated, the resulting identity diffusion and role conflict may affect the students’ academic achievement as well as emotional well-being. Pedersen (1991) stated that "International students are likely to experience more problems than students in general and have access to fewer resources to help them". Actually, this carried out a question: have our universities been able to give international students sufficient help and the attention required for adjusting to a new land? College student development theory has guided the work of practitioners and scholars concerned with student growth, and it provides a valuable framework to understand how students master skills associated with the current demand of society (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010). Identity development theories help practitioners to understand how students go about discovering their “abilities, aptitude and objectives” while assisting them to achieve their “maximum effectiveness” (American Council on Education, 1937). This paper is an attempt to test the theoretical framework of Baxter Magolda’s self-authorship to measure the process that international students develop their own formulas for becoming successful during their college life far from home country. Specifically, there are three questions should be asked:

  1. To what extent do international students posse self-authoring ways of knowing?
  2. What types of pre-collegiate experiences in their home countries are associated with development of self-authorship?
  3. What are the factors that predict the catalysts and obstacles on self-authorship development among international students?

Theoretical Framework

Baxter Magolda (2008) notes that many college students today have accumulated knowledge, but lack the ability to make effective decisions, and have been only trained to follow directions. In other words, college students have not developed self-authorship, defined as “internal capacity to define one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations” (Baxter Magolda, 2008). In their twenties, students struggle to answer three major questions associated with the development of self-authorship: Who am I? How do I know? And how do I want to construct relationships with others? (Baxter Magolda, 2009). Although international students come from widely diverse backgrounds, they are expected to “adjust” to a narrowly defined set of behaviors requiring them to learn their new and proper roles (Spradley & Phillips, 1972) to understand their own identity and able to reach self-authorship. The three questions of self-authorship can be applied to practitioner’s daily work to explain the psychological development and culture maturity of international students.

Baxter Magolda (2009) describes self-authorship as developmental capacity process that embodies three phases: 1) external formulas; 2) crossroads; and, 3) self-authorship. Table I shows the three phases and the key elements of each phase.

Phase I: External Formulas

The first phase, external formulas, represents the early years of adulthood where individuals heavily rely on external forces and authorities, (e.g. parents, professors, and supervisors) to resolve problems and make decisions (Baxter Malgoda, 2008). In this phase, students believe that right answers exist for everything and they are seeking right answers from authorities. Especially in some countries such as China, the teacher-centered education shows strong power of authorities. So, a Chinese student probably would feel uncomfortable to disagree or challenge a professor or author in an American classroom. It is also common in some other countries, the decision of college and major are made by parents or family, with considerably less, or no-input from the student. Thus, international students feel pulled between their own desires and their family’s expectations. Even, when talking to an international student on campus, he/she may state that this country or this school is not the one he/she really wanted, but his/her parents chose for them. At this phase, international students are not able to listen to their own inner voice and they are still confused about who is the real “me”.

Phase II: Crossroad

The second phase, crossroad, defines a point where individuals begin to make decisions on their own relying on their internal voice. In this phase, international students are still torn between following their internal voice and listening to external formulas, but they begin to recognize the importance of listening and cultivating their internal voice. For example, start thinking about “who am I” and “what I really want”. In this phase, they should be able to establish their own beliefs and goals based on the discovering of the real “me” and listening to the internal desires.

Also, in the crossroad phase, forming relationships is one of the main concerns that individuals must face (Baxter Magolda, 2009). International students who are new in a different environment would always feel helpless to establish the social networks .The study of more than 450 students at 10 public universities in the South and Northeast shows that, many students from abroad, and especially the recent influx of undergraduates from China, are struggling to integrate in American classrooms and dorm rooms (Fischer, 2012).

Phase III: Self- Authorship

Moving into self-authorship means using your own hands to build and mold who you are and to firmly establish your internal voice (Baxter Magloda, 2008). In this phase, students have reached self-authorship which allows them to gain confidence of their own identity, what to believe, and how to act on relationships. Baxter Magolda (2008) divided this phase to three levels: 1) Trusting the internal voice – students are able to control reality and shape actions; 2) Building internal foundation – students are able to build a comprehensive system of belief to form internal commitments; and, 3) Securing internal commitment – students are able to commit to their beliefs.

When students reach this phase, they accomplish the transition from authority dependence to self-authorship, and they are able to construct own beliefs that serve as the foundation or philosophy of daily life, and they will make decisions for themselves.

Significance of Study

Increasing internationalization and globalization of higher education and society are prompting interesting new research on student psychological and cultural development.

Most of the psychological problems of the international students have been conceptualized with very little supporting empirical data. As a result, there are few, instruments available which are designed to assess the psychological needs of foreign students in a comprehensive manner (Li, 2008). The theory of self-authorship has been important for developing theoretical and practical knowledge, however, Baxter Magolda pointed out that the sample of her participants were most White and she calls for testing and exploration of self-authorship development in a more diverse sample of student has not been undertaken (2001). Levine and Cureton (1998) stated that, multiculturalism remains the most unresolved issue on campus today. How do educators come to understand culture difference in ways that enable them to interact effectively with outers form different racial, ethnic, or social identity groups? How can institutions of higher learning better address the seemingly intractable problems associated with educating for intercultural understand (King., & Magolda. 2005)? Finding ways to answer these questions lies at the heart of institutional efforts to achieve diversity outcomes and the center of new theoretical approaches focusing on how international students successfully achieve their journey of self-authorship to reach their study and life goals.

Table I. Developing Self-Authorship

Table 1
Self-Authorship Phases

Phase 1: External Formulas

Listening and relying on authorities (external formulas) to make decisions

Phase 2: Crossroads

Following others versus listening to your own voice
Listening to Internal Voice Recognize and identify the internal voice
Cultivating Internal Voice Use internal voice to establish beliefs, goals, and discover real “me”.

Phase 3: Self-Authorship

Be able to make own decision about what to believe
Trusting the Internal Voice Use internal voice to control reality and shape actions
Building Internal Foundation Build a comprehensive system of belief to form internal commitments
Securing Internal Commitment Live out internal commitments in everyday life.

Adapted from Baxter Magolda (2009).


American Council on Education. (1937). The student personnel point of view: A report of a conference on the philosophy and development of student personnel work in college and university. (1). 3.

Adler, P. (1985). The transitional experience: an alternative view of culture shock. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 18, pp. 13–23.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2001). Making their own way: Narratives of transforming higher education to promote self-authorship. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2008). Three elements of self-authorship. Journal of College Student Development, 49. 4, 269-284.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2009). Authoring your life: Developing an internal voice to navigate life’s challenges. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Cushner, K. & Karim, A. (2004) Study abroad at the university level, in: D.Landis, J.Bennett, & M.Bennet (Eds) Handbook of Intercultural Training, 3rd eds. (pp. 289–308) (Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage).

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fischer, K. (2012). Many foreign students are friendless in the U.S. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gu, Q. (2005) ‘Enjoy loneliness’– understanding Chinese learners' voices. Humanizing Language Teaching. (7). 6.

Hoff, B. (1979) Classroom generated barriers to learning: international students in American higher education (Doctoral dissertation, U.S. International University, 1979), Dissertation Abstracts International, 40, p. 3810.

Hull, F. w. (1978). Foreign students in the United States of America: Coping behavior within the educational environment. NY: Pager Publishers.

King, P. M. & Baxter Magolda, M. (2005) A developmental model of intercultural maturity, Journal of College Student Development. 46. PP.571–592.

Levine, A., & Cureton, J. S. (1998). When hope and fear collide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Li, M. H. (2008). Helping college student cope: Identifying predictors of active coping in different stressful situations. Psychiatry, Psychology and Mental health, (2) 1.

Open Doors 2012: International Student Enrollment Increased by 6 Percent. Retrieved from:

Pedersen, P. (1991). Role learning as a coping strategy for uprooted foreign students. In G. V. Coelho & P. I. Ahmed (Eds), Uprooting and development. PP.295-320. New York: Plenum.

Pizzolato, J. E., Nguyen, T. L., Johnston, M. P., & Wang, S. (2012). Understanding context: Cultural, relationship, psychological interactions in self-authorship development. Journal of College Student Development.(53), 5. PP. 656-679.

Spradley, J. P., & Phillips, M. (1972). Culture and stress: A quantitative analysis American Anthropologist, 74. PP.518-529.

Sandhu, D. S., & Asrabadi, B. R. (1994). Development of an acculturative stress scale for international students: Preliminary findings. Psychological Reports, 75, 435-448.

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