International students’ strategies for well-being

Wen-Chih Tseng

How and why some international students experience their study abroad lives in positive ways is largely ignored in existing research. In this study, two international students were interviewed for their perception of the sources of well-being during their study abroad experience. A grounded theory analysis showed that they related strategies for well-being most strongly to tactics for gaining general well-being and coping skills for adjusting to study abroad life from the perspective of their study abroad goals. This study built a model of how international students exercise possible ways to maintain well-being through their study abroad experience. Furthermore, the process of the qualitative approach itself provided for a better understanding of international students and an implication for future research.


The international student population has increased dramatically over the past fifty years. Today, the United States has the highest number of international students in the world. In the 2000-01 academic year, there were 547,867 international students studying in the United States (American Council on Education, 2000; Institute of International Education, 2001).

Educators in higher education display a great interest in developing a better understanding of how international students differ from their American counterparts and in determining ways to assist these students in adjusting to the host culture. Researchers have devoted a great deal of effort to the study of adjustment problems and issues of international students (Cheng, 1999; Han, 1996; Kaczmarek, Matlock, Merta, Ames, & Ross, 1994; Lin & Yi, 1997; Ying & Liese, 1994). Specifically, the key adjustment problems faced by international students include the following four major categories: (1) general living adjustment, such as adjusting to American food, living/housing environment and transportation, adaptation to a new climate (weather), dealing with financial problems and health care concerns; (2) academic adjustment, such as lack of proficiency in the English language, lack of understanding of the American educational system, and lack of effective learning skills for gaining academic success; (3) socio-cultural adjustment, for example, experiencing culture shock, cultural fatigue, or racial discrimination, having difficulties in adjusting to new social/cultural customs, norms and regulations, differences in intercultural contacts/social activities, and encountering conflicts between American host standards (or values, world views, life styles) and those of home country; and (4) personal psychological adjustment, such as experiencing homesickness, loneliness, depression, frustration, or feeling alienation, isolation, the loss of status or identity, and feelings of worthlessness.

The research, previously noted, has focused on problems that impact international student adjustment. What is largely ignored in these studies is an explanation of how and why some international students experience their study abroad life in positive ways. Although numerous theories of well-being have been conducted with domestic students, these studies seldom select international students as research participants. From the perspective of international students, it leaves gaps at two levels: what constitutes and determines their well-being and how they understand and manage their well-being. The goal of this present study was to examine the determinants of international students’ well-being, and discern their strategies for attaining well-being.

A qualitative design of grounded theory was used as a framework to explore international students’ definition of well-being and then to discern their strategies for enhancing their well-being while studying abroad. Grounded theory, first discussed by Glaser and Strauss (1967), utilizes techniques to analyze and interpret actions and experience of the respondent, develop and refine analytic interpretations of empirical data, and, finally, construct a representative theoretical model of respondent’s experience. In other words, the purpose of grounded theory is specifically designed to build theory related to complex social phenomena and allow for theory development in an area where research is sparse (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

According to Guba and Lincoln’s (1988) standpoint, grounded theory is an interpretive method of the naturalistic inquiry, not a hypothesis-testing method in the conventional paradigm. For this current study, the term strategies is defined as possible rather than as most frequent or representative actions or experience; that is, the researchers’ desire is to understand the phenomenon of the strategies for well-being. Additionally, in the research of grounded theory a theoretical or conceptual model is generated by systematic induction, not by logical deduction from prior assumptions (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Applied in this study, the researchers will focus on identifying some strategies for well-being among international students by asking the following two major research questions: How do international students describe or define their well-being? What strategies do international students use to build and enhance individual well-being?



The two international students who participated in this study were enrolled at Kansas State University, which has an international student enrollment of more than 900. The purposeful sampling method was employed to insure that the international students in the study could provide rich examples and information regarding the strategies for well-being. Of the two respondents, one from Africa, was a 23-year-old senior, single, residing in the United States for two years. The other respondent from Asia was a 38-year-old graduate student and a married father with two children. He and his family came to the United Stated ten months previous to the interview; additionally, in terms of religious background, he identified himself as a Christian.

The study was approved by the Committee on Research Involving Human Subjects. Informed consent was obtained from each respondent prior to data collection. The researcher conducted informal, open-ended, and semi-structured interviews that averaged 40 minutes in duration. These interviews took place in each student’s home and were audiotaped by the first researcher with the respondents’ expressed permission for research purposes. Shortly thereafter each interview was transcribed verbatim.

Data analysis

The analysis of the data was guided by Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) qualitative methods of grounded theory using a series of coding processes–open, axial, and selective coding. During the process of coding, the researcher’s field notes, journals of the research experience, and theoretical memos were incorporated into the coding process. After both interviews were transcribed from the tapes, the researcher began conducting open coding along with a line-by-line analysis. Open coding is designed to uncover, name, and develop concepts of information.

Once the data were first conceptualized, open coding was followed by axial coding in which the researcher repeatedly re-examined the concepts and made comparisons to determine similarities and differences in each transcript. Finally, selective coding was conducted in order to have the concepts grouped into a smaller set of categories based on obvious similarities; in the meanwhile, the interrelationship of categories and subcategories emerged to form a more precise and detailed interpretation about a particular phenomenon.


The respondents in this study reported many strategies for attaining well-being. After conducting the three distinct steps (open, axial, and selective coding) of data analysis, two main categories merged from the previous strategies to explain how international students understand and manage their well-being. The two categories, tactics for gaining general well-being and coping skills for adjustment of study abroad life, are described below from the perspective of international students’ well-being.

Tactics for gaining general well-being

During the interviews, the respondents were asked about their description or definition of well-being. Both international students defined well-being with some common points and insights. Their perception of well-being included: physical health, happiness, joy and pleasure, harmony of body, mind and soul, feeling of security, sense of satisfaction, fulfillment, or achievement, and feeling as if their life is meaningful. Strictly speaking, these concepts of well-being could be divided into two categories: overall satisfaction in life and positive affect. The respondents noted, “Joy and happiness play important roles in my well-being.” “Well-being is to feel satisfaction and fulfillment at the bottom of my heart, feel no fear and regret when I do something or make decisions.” Overall, well-being answers the question, “Do you feel good about yourself?”

Because of differences in cultural/ethnic background, religious belief, or study abroad experiences, the subjects reported other-very diverse viewpoints of well-being. For ex ample, one respondent, who was a Christian and a married father with two kids, reported, “My whole life is determined by God, if every thing I do is accepted by God, I’ll feel happiness.” “To make sure my children are well developed also allows me to feel happy.” Additionally, for the respondent with religious beliefs, faith seemed to be at the core of his strategies, “God will give us more blessings, joy, and peace. Our well-being will be created.” “I’ll pray to ask for God’s help. My belief plays a vital role in my own well-being.”

Reflecting on previous descriptions of well-being, the respondents developed relevant strategies for attaining individual well-being, such as doing exercise, conducting self-examination or introspection, adapting to one’s thought, and seeking help from others. The respondents reported, “I do Tai Chi Chuan, it can enhance my physical health as well as cultivate my mind.” “Through introspection I can review personal thought and behavior and promote my well-being. “Changing your mind, sometimes makes a big difference and makes you feel more optimistic.”

Coping skills for adjustment to attain well-being in study abroad life

For international students their foreign status, objectively speaking, is a specific condition that influences how they perceive their own well-being. Therefore, their well-being, to some extent, consists in a meaningful study abroad life. Specifically, in the respondents’ view a meaningful study-abroad life included a series of achievement outcomes, such as completing school work, planning for the future, achieving an individual career vision, pursuing success in academic studies, seeking a development of professional knowledge, experiencing a different world, and increasing knowledge about the world. One respondent reported: “Well-being is to define my personal future. It is to decide how I plan for my future and how I can achieve one.” “The most important thing to have a sense of well-being is to achieve my goals.” The other pointed out, “Studying abroad was an experience of letting me see a different world as well as promoting my professional career development for the future. Additionally, it also made me more aware of the meaning of my life and of well-being.”

Since a successful and meaningful study abroad life is an essential determinant of international students’ well-being. It was not unexpected that their strategies for well-being were based on various coping skills for enhancing individual adjustment capabilities. These two international students used the following strategies to attain well-being in their study abroad life: (1) Know self and others. Understanding one’s self and others, especially to understand the similarities and differences between ones’ own culture and host culture, is a significant step toward making the adjustment to study abroad life. The respondents reported, “I knew what I’d like to do here, so I tried to overcome every difficulty I met.” “Understanding and knowing the American culture, actually, will help me to find joy in my own way.”(2) Make friends and build friendships. Friends always play an essential-role in an international student’s life, like the respondents said, “For study abroad life, the other important thing is to build more friendships.” “It is very important to find other international friends as well as American friends.” (3) Expand individual worldview. To enlarge one’s field of vision as well as to broaden one’s knowledge of the world is a significant way to strengthen individual adjustment capabilities. As one respondent replied, “The greater knowledge I have about the world, the more I know the differences in people, and the more I am able to deal with the conflict.” (4) Ask help and handle problems. Asking help is the best policy for adjustment. The respondents shared their methods including asking questions when you do not know, getting help from other people, and seeking assistance from the Internet. From their standpoints, asking for help was a useful means of dealing with problems and of problem solving. (5) Establish cultural and social contacts. To contact or to participate in activities is an effective way to get to know host people and the culture. One respondent reported, “Through participation in community or church activities, I have learned different points of view … it helps international students be able to understand the American society, the culture.” (6) Build relationships with advisors and instructors. The relationship between the international student and faculty (especially one’s major academic advisor) has a significant effect on international students’ learning. One respondent commented, “To have good relationships with your instructors, helps your learning, helps you achieve your goal, and gain familiarity with a profession.” (7) Become Proficient in the English language. Language problems were a great concern to both respondents. From their statements, language was a very important element for adjustment to study abroad life. The respondents shared, “The most important thing is language. Language is your way in, once you know the language, the door is open for you.” (8) Use the tactic of “Letting go.” For one respondent, adjustment was just a simple way–“let it go.” Knowing when to let a problem or concern go works as a strategy to help international students lessen stress and gain well-being. He said, “You just leave it alone. You just don’t care about it.”

Conclusions and Implications

The researchers’ intent in this qualitative study was to delineate international students’ strategies for attaining well-being. Analysis of the interviews found that well-being, in international student life, included two general categories, one of personal satisfaction and positive affect, the other related to pursuing a meaningful and successful study abroad life. Thus their strategies for well-being obviously involve general as well as specific tactics. The former emphasis is on enhancement of common well-being, the latter on promotion of study abroad well-being from the perspective of study abroad goals.

Findings of this grounded study add credence to the research on how international students adjust their life in positive ways: achieving specific study abroad goals and simultaneously seeking personal well-being. These finding have implications in the areas of student affairs. From international student’s own unique individual perspectives on well-being, the study is helpful to student affairs professionals to have a better understanding about international students’ needs and concerns since the qualitative data were gathered directly from international students and provided the international student’s whole experience. Furthermore, the international student’s eight strategies for adjusting to study abroad life: 1) knowing self and others, 2) making friends and building relationships, 3) expanding individual worldview, 4) asking help and handling problems, 5) establishing cultural and social contacts, 6) building relationships with advisors and instructors, 7) becoming proficient in the English language, and 8) using the tactic of letting go, can be a useful reference for student affairs professionals to develop appropriate programs/interventions in order to promote international student study abroad well-being.

Finally, the study has a limited sample; however, the grounded theory of this study builds a model of how international students exercise possible ways to maintain well-being, and the model can be generalized to account for other international students’ phenomenon of well-being on different campuses. Moreover, the qualitative approach itself provides a better understanding of international student’s life and is a useful process for further research of exploring a more complete and detailed picture of their strategies for well-being.


American Council on Education (2000). Internationalization of U.S. higher education. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Cheng, E.H. (1999). A study of international students’ adjustment problems at the University of South Dakota. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of South Dakota.

Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Guba, E.G. & Lincoln, Y.S. (1988). Do inquiry paradigms imply inquiry methodologies? In D.M. Fetterman (Ed.), Qualitative approaches to evaluation in education (pp. 89-115). New York, NY: Praeger Publishers.

Han, H.Y. (1996). A study of the adjustment problems of Korean students in the Pittsburgh area. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.

Institute of International Education (2001). Foreign student and total U.S. enrollment. Retrieved December 13, 2001 from layout_l.htm

Kaczmarek, P.G., Matlock, G., Merta, R., Ames, M.H., & Ross, M. (1994). An assessment of international college student adjustment. International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling, 17, 241-247.

Lin, J.C., & Yi, J.K. (1997). Asian international students’ adjustment: Issues and program suggestions. College Student Journal 31(4), 473-479.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques for developing grounded theory (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publication.

Ying, Y., & Liese, L.H. (1994). Initial adjustment of Taiwanese students to the United States. Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology, 25(4), 466-477.


Research Assistant, Counseling Services


Professor, Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology

Kansas State University

COPYRIGHT 2002 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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