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Intercultural Friendship of Students

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International students form three types of friendships based on the purpose that they serve:

  • co-national friends – these are friends originating from the same home country, and they affirm and express the culture of origin;
  • host national friends – these are friends originating from the country in which international students have chosen to study, and they aid in fulfilling academic and professional aspirations;
  • multinational friends – these are friends coming from different countries than the home and host country, and they are mainly for recreational activities (Bochner, McLeod and Lin, 1997).

Friendship Network Grid

International students primarily form friendships with co-nationals because of their cultural similarities as well as the shared experience of being in a foreign culture (Glass and Westmont, 2013). Friendships with co-nationals are good because they provide a feeling of cultural identity and offer emotional support (Maundeni, 2001), reduce the stress that usually comes with crossing cultures (Kim, 2001) and provide the opportunity to understand new culture through discussions, social interactions and intellectual exchange with other students experiencing the same emotions (Wolf, 2007).

Co-national friendships are said to provide students with a strong support system which gives them the confidence to explore an unfamiliar culture and engage with host students (Glass and Westmont, 2013). Kim (2001) however argues that this support offered is good in the short term but that in the long term it hinders the adaptation process. This is because reliance on co-national friendships inhibits them from forming friendships with host nationals (Church, 1982). Additionally, the reinforcement of cultural identity has negative effects on language acquisition and adjusting to the new social and physical environment (Maundeni, 2001).

Likewise, international students make many multi-national friendships because of the natural bond created as a result of both parties being foreigners in a foreign land (Hendrickson et al., 2011). This common ground makes students feel like they are not alone in the new country. It also opens up an opportunity for international students to not only learn about the host country’s culture, but also the cultures of the other countries that multi-national students come from (Hendrickson et al, 2011).

Although international students form a majority of their friendships with co-nationals and multinational students, studies show that they desire to develop friendships with host nationals and to have more interactions with them (Church, 1982). International students get disappointed when these expectations are not met and even go as far as to blame themselves for the limited friendships with host nationals (Gareis, 2012). There are substantial challenges they face in trying to form these friendships.

One of them is a poor command of the host country’s language which makes communication difficult and thus hinders interaction (Yamazaki, Taira, Shun-ya and Yokoyama, 1997). Also, international students may face racial discrimination from host country individuals who may as a result not be interested in making friends with them (Kim, 1994). Further, international students are entering a place where friendship networks already exist, thus host nationals are less open to forming friendships than they are (Wolf, 2007).

Despite the challenges discussed, international students should still make effort to increase their host national friendships because of the many benefits they present. Gomez (2014) credits building relationships with host nationals and having a strong host network as one of the two most important factors in a student’s ability to socially adjust.

Students with more host national friends report higher levels of satisfaction, less homesickness and less loneliness in their study experience (Church, 1982). They adapt better to life overseas, have fewer social difficulties and improved communication competence (Ward and Kennedy, 1993). They truly begin to understand why people behave, communicate and interact the way they do, thus previously explained behaviour is put into context and can be interpreted more readily (Kim, 2001). This leads them to have positive feelings about the host culture (Prutt, 1978).

Hendrickson et al (2011) proposed a friendship network grid to discover how the strength of above-mentioned friendships affects satisfaction, contentment, decreased homesickness, and social connectedness of international students. International students with a higher ratio of host national friendships reported higher levels of satisfaction, contentment, social connectedness, and lower levels of homesickness. This holds true because strong friendships with co-nationals put up a barrier to adapting to local culture as students keep on identifying with their own culture (Kim, 2001).

Whereas more contact with host nationals fastens the adaptation process as it exposes them to the local culture and in so doing, helps them to understand it better (Kim, 2001). The study went further to look at friendship strength and variability. International students with varying host national friendships reported that they are significantly more satisfied and feel more socially connected. This is synonymous with a study carried out by Kudo and Simkin (2003).

Another study was carried out on Japanese students in an Australian university to determine their intercultural friendship formation (Kudo and Simkin, 2003). Japanese students reported that their friendship networks overlapped with those of other friends, making it difficult to bridge contacts with Australians because of shared Japanese networks.

More diverse friendship networks, particularly with host nationals, may open these shared networks, offering weak ties with more diverse friends. As discussed above, the social capital theory asserts that through social relations, individuals are able to acquire social resources from others. It follows that having a variety of social contacts should give individuals access to different kinds of social resources and those with little friendship variation could be hindered in that access (Hendrickson et al, 2011).

The practicality of Social Capital

Social capital introduces an interpersonal element to employability, where an individual gets information via his/her networks (Adler and Kwon, 2002). Of importance to international students is their ability to tap into the bridging role that individuals in their life play in helping them get information about employment opportunities (Tomlinson, 2016). The potential of the information to influence the achievement of career aspirations and securing of work is dependent on the strength and size of one’s network (Fugate et al., 2004).

Thus, in their search for work, international students must put into consideration the importance of actively building a network of contacts that will help them to access even the unadvertised job vacancies (King, 2004). HEIs particularly provide them with the basis to develop the necessary bridging ties with key social actors (Putnam, 1999).

Social Capital of International Students

The work environment today is fast changing. Our economy is becoming ever more knowledge-based, that is, we are increasingly making our living through selling high-value services, rather than physical goods (DfES, 2003). There is also growing anxiety about the technological revolution and its potential to replace large numbers of human workers with computers and robots if humans can’t keep one step ahead in the race to acquire skills (Harvey and Bowers-Brown, 2003). This poses a significant challenge to individuals: to maintain their employability, they have to flexibly adapt to a job market that places increasing expectations and demands on them (Tomlinson, 2012).

In such a fast-changing and increasingly competitive world, the role of higher education in equipping the labour force with appropriate and relevant skills, stimulating innovation and supporting creativity, and enriching the quality of life is central (DfES, 2003). Governments and employers have come to expect Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to increase the stock of human capital, which is seen as a source of national economic wellbeing (Knight and Yorke, 2003).

HEIs have traditionally met this economic need by effectively equipping graduates with the skills they require for their future employment (Tomlinson, 2012). However as illustrated earlier in this paper, employability is not only concerned with having the right skills. It is also reliant on efficacy beliefs, metacognition, work experience, emotional intelligence, career identity, personal adaptability and social capital. The following subsections explore the efforts that HEIs are making to increase the social capital of international students and in so doing, enhance their employability.

Buddy Program

Buddy programs are organized efforts to pair incoming international students with current students, in an effort to help them navigate campus life and deal with the challenges that come with moving to a new country (Durrani, 2017). Upon typing “buddy program university” into my Google search, I was bombarded with a never-ending list of universities describing how their buddy program benefits international students.

Some of these include airport pickups, help with visits to local authorities, helping with course selection, personal tour of campus, tips on social activities on campus, information on finding a new flat and phone services among others. However, the main benefit that resonated across the board was the opportunity to make local friends, learn the local language and get insight into the culture.

The University of Potsdam defines the goal of their buddy program as “to facilitate the integration of international students into German society and life at the University of Potsdam, and to develop ties between international and local students”. In return, local students also meet international students, learn new languages, new cultures and possibly build long-lasting friendships. The experience can be so enriching that it leads to international students signing up to be buddies themselves.

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