Guiding International Students

Aren’t we all multicultural and doesn’t work with students always involve interpersonal dialogue?

Defining terms

With the internationalization of higher education providers, counselors and policy makers have to start asking new, difficult questions such as “what is an appropriate criterion to use when deciding on what is culturally relevant teaching and guidance” and “who benefits from teaching and guidance and who is left in the margins”. Multicultural politics and ideologies are visible in everyday social debates in Finland and have become an issue with political significance. Finnish universities are diverse and so is Finnish society, but what does this actually mean?

Multiculturalism in the past decade has been both championed and maligned; its praise is often uncritical, idealized, and dismissed as a pedagogical instrument or as holding an underlying political purpose (Goldgerg 2004). The American Psychological Association (APA) has compiled Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice, and Organizational Change. Their definition is also highly appropriate for the guidance work carried out with international students in Finnish universities.

Multiculturalism and Diversity. The terms "multiculturalism" and "diversity" have been used interchangeably to include aspects of identity stemming from gender, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or age. Multiculturalism, in an absolute sense, recognizes the broad scope of dimensions of race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, gender, age, disability, class status, education, religious/spiritual orientation, and other cultural dimensions. All of these are critical aspects of an individual's ethnic/racial and personal identity, and counselors are encouraged to be cognizant of issues related to all of these dimensions of culture. In addition, each cultural dimension has unique issues and concerns. To effectively help clients, to effectively train students, to be most effective as agents of change counselors are encouraged to be familiar with issues of these multiple identities within and between individuals. (APA Guidelines 2002)

The concept of diversity has been widely used in employment settings. The application of the term began with reference to women and Persons of Color, underrepresented in the workplace, particularly in decision-making roles. It has since evolved to be more encompassing in its intent and application by referring to individuals' social identities including age, sexual orientation, physical disability, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, workplace role/position, religious and spiritual orientation, and work/family concerns (Loden, 1996).

Career guidance professionals and other counselors and teachers, like all people, are shaped and influenced by many factors. These include, but are not limited to, their heritage(s), various dimensions of identity including ethnic and racial identity development, gender socialization, and socioeconomic experiences, and other dimensions of identity that predispose individuals to certain biases and assumptions about themselves and others. (APA Guidelines 2002).

People approach interpersonal interactions with a set of attitudes, or worldview, that helps shape their perceptions of others. Worldview, according to Henson (1992), encompasses the assumptions, concepts, and premises of a culture and subculture. Diverse worldviews enable the same story to be looked at, reported, and interpreted differently around the world.

In career guidance, one goal can be to help students improve their ability to reflect on their own lives. At its best, when people and ideas are treated with respect, and views are expressed accurately, an interactive discussion of controversial issues usually produces high motivation, and helps students learn about important issues while developing their skills in critical thinking. At its worst, however, interactive discussion can be an effective way for guidance personnel to impose personal opinions on students. (APA Guidelines 2002).

It is good to keep in mind that, in the context of Finnish universities, self-directed and autonomous behavior is not a cultural product. Guidance work is about dialogue between people and creating a supportive and safe environment. A guidance session at its best should provide tools for reflection, but should not exert "too much influence" on students. Finding an appropriate balance is not easy, especially in the climate of controversy that can be more common when guiding students who come from a wide range of backgrounds.

Research and discussion on the lives of international students is often culturally-oriented and predominantly focused on the demographic profiles of source countries and on their adjustment problems. Arthur (2007, 2008) associates the career planning and decision-making needs of international students with three phases of the transition process:

a) managing the cross-cultural transition of entering a new culture

b) learning in a new cultural context

c) transferring international expertise to a work setting in the host or the home country

Working with international students, like with any students, is about examining personal identity, values, possible value conflicts, and academic and professional goals (Arthur, N. & Flynn, S. 2011).