Learning in a Different Culture: A Qualitative Study
of Vietnamese Graduate Students’ Experiences at a
Vocational University in Taiwan
Assistant professor, Department of Applied Foreign Languages, National Kaohsiung University of Applied Sciences
This qualitative exploratory study investigates Vietnamese Graduate Students’ experiences at a vocational university in Taiwan. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has adopted a serial of policy to internationalize Taiwan’s institutions of higher education in order to survive the global competition. The policy includes encouraging the colleges/universities to adopt English curriculum for the international students to pursue their studies in Taiwan.
Several studies have examined the international students’ experiences at academic universities in Taiwan. However, few studies in the past investigated the international students in the setting of a vocational university. As academic and vocational colleges/ universities plan to recruit more international students, understanding the Vietnamese students’ adjustment problems and their coping strategies in a vocational university is a great starting point for accumulating related knowledge. Twelve participants were interviewed in the study. The language and communication-related problems were the major difficulties reported by the participants. The coping strategy the participants frequently used was to seek for social support. The results indicate that the vocational university needs to be more internationalized and to provide more supporting services in order to better serve the future international students.
Key words: higher education, vocational college / university, English curriculum, international student, Vietnamese students, adjustment,
Higher education in Taiwan has been evolving rapidly since early 1990s, when the government launched an expansion program to increase college enrollments in response to the
public’s outcry for greater access to higher education. The program has created two systems of colleges in higher education, namely academic universities/colleges and vocational universities/colleges of technology. The conventional distinction between the two systems of education is that the vocational colleges provide more job-oriented training, while the academic colleges tend to provide academic training.
Although the source of students for academic colleges and vocational colleges are different, both systems have felt the potential crisis of reduced numbers of future students due to the declining birth rate in Taiwan (Ministry of Interior, 2005; Yang, 2003). In the competition for enrollment among the colleges of two systems, the vocational colleges are relatively disadvantageous due to the relatively low visibility to the public and less support from the government (MOE, 2003).
Another type of competition has followed relentlessly since 2002 when Taiwan became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Education, thus, is under the regulation of the General Agreement of Trade in Services (GATS). The immediate impact of the agreement on higher education in Taiwan is the competition from the foreign institutions of higher education which are allowed to recruit Taiwanese students (Yang, 2003). Realizing the imperative challenge, the Ministry of Education has adopted a serial of policy to internationalize Taiwan’s institutions of higher education in order to survive the global competition. The policy has included encouraging the colleges/universities to adopt English curriculum and to set up Taiwan Scholarship Program to attract international students (MOE, 2004).
Faced with the competition domestically and globally, the vocational colleges found themselves in an ever difficult situation. However, the challenges also mean opportunities for change. The university in this study pioneered to be the first institution in vocational education system to recruit the Vietnamese graduate students systematically, and established an English EMBA program specifically for them. The first group of twenty-three Vietnamese graduate students arrived in September, 2003. After studying for three semesters, twenty-two students successfully graduated in January, 2005.
This graduate program provided a great opportunity for studying international students’ experiences in a vocational university. Vietnam has become one of the focal countries that the MOE has encouraged the vocational colleges to strengthen educational cooperation with (MOE, 2004). In the past few years, the MOE has launched several activities to recruit Vietnamese students for the vocational colleges. From 1999 to 2004, the number of Vietnamese students studying in Taiwan has shown a five-time increase, from 86 to 438 students (MOE, 2005). Although the number accounted for only 5.6 percent of the total international student population in Taiwan in 2004, more Vietnamese students are expected to
study in Taiwan as more colleges extend recruitment to Vietnam.
Vietnam is a developing country which needs educated workforce to help its budding economy. Thus, the high quality and relatively low cost of Taiwan’s higher education appeal greatly to the Vietnamese students. Moreover, the investment from the Taiwanese business in Vietnam has reached USD80 billion in 2003, toppling all the other foreign investment in Vietnam (Bureau of Trade, 2005). Being educated in Taiwan will provide Vietnamese students with better career opportunities in the Taiwanese business in Vietnam.
The purpose of this study was to investigate the Vietnamese graduate students’ experiences in a vocational university. Past studies have examined international students’ experiences at the academic universities in Taiwan. No studies in the past have examined the international students in the setting of a vocational university, and no studies have focused on the Vietnamese students. As vocational colleges plan to recruit more international students, understanding the Vietnamese students’ adjustment problems and their coping strategies is a great starting point to accumulate related knowledge. Therefore, the vocational university can provide appropriate support and guidance for the future international students and maintain advantageous in the competition for recruitment from the academic universities.
The related literature review is grouped into two parts—(1) studies about international students’ adjustment issues in the U.S. and (2) studies about sojourners’ adjustment in Taiwan.
Studies about International Students Adjustment Issues in the U.S
The primary purpose for the international students studying in U.S colleges and universities is to obtain a degree (Heikinheimo & Shute, 1986; Parr, Bradley & Bingi, 1992). Yet, the challenges of studying in a different culture often emerge during the process and hinder the international students’ attempt for academic success. The recurring problems often cited in the past studies included academic challenges, cross-cultural adjustment problems, and personal problems (Perkins, Perkins, Guglieimino & Reiff, 1977; Fatima, 2001; Zhai, 2002).
Academic challenges which were frequently identified as the greatest stress for international students included English language competence, different educational systems, and different teaching and learning styles (Brislin, 1981; Surdam & Collins, 1984; Parr, Bradley & Bingi, 1992; Zhai, 2002). Among the difficulties, English proficiency, especially communication problem with others in English in academic settings, caused the most serious
concern for international students studying in the U.S. The cross-cultural adjustment problems included social integration, customs, and food, while the personal problems included homesickness, funding, and housing (Perkins, Perkins, Guglieimino & Reiff, 1977; Parr, Bradley & Bingi, 1992; Zhai, 2002).
The above-mentioned problems often caused stresses for the international students and consequently brought damage to their psychological well-being. The symptoms included depression, irritability, lower self-esteem, and hostility toward the host culture (Parr, Bradley & Bingi, 1992). When facing with the adjustment problems, the coping strategy that the international students were likely to use was to seek for social support (Surdam & Collins, 1984; Mallinckrodt & Leong, 1992; Fatima, 2001; Zhai, 2002).
Mallinckrodt and Leong (1992) divided social supports into two groups—graduate program support and family environment support. They found that all forms of graduate program support, such as student-faculty relations, quality of instruction, facilities and curriculum flexibility, seemed to greatly reduce the level of stress symptoms for international students. Relations with faculty members were particularly beneficial for male students. All types of family environment support seemed to benefit the male international students, while female international students seemed to benefit more on quality of child care, living conditions, and financial resources. Friends and family support were found consistently to be the preferred sources for assistance (Surdam & Collins, 1984; Zhai, 2002).
Student services were less preferred by the international students because they did not feel that the faculty and staff were adept to solve their problems. Past studies have suggested that the campus student services needed to find various channels to reach the international students.
Studies about International Students’ Adjustment in Taiwan
The limited literature about international students’ adjustment issues in Taiwan reported similar findings with those of the studies in the U.S. Academic challenges were found to be the major sources of stress for the overseas Chinese students and the international students who studied in Taiwan (Liu, 1982 in Lee, 2000; Lee, 1987; Lee, 2000). The students from Japan and South Korea seemed to adjust better than the students of other nationalities (Lee, 1987; Lee, 2000). Better Chinese language proficiency and sharing similar cultures might explain why the Japanese and Korean students have better adjustments. Other variables such as age, length of staying in Taiwan, marital status and education were reported in the literature of sojourner’s adjustment. Researchers found that the sojourners who were older, married and with a higher education level adjusted better in Taiwan (Haung, 1994).
Taiwan, Lee (2000) surveyed 184 international students who studied in the Taipei area and concluded that seeking for social support primarily from friends and families was the most significant strategy. This finding was consistent with that of the similar studies in the U.S. International students in Taiwan, like their counterparts in the U.S., were less likely to use the student services offered by the school because of the language barrier, lack of knowledge about the services, or even being unaware of the existence of the service.
In summary, the adjustment issues experienced by the international students in Taiwan shared some similarities with those of the international students in the U.S. The literature provided a comprehensive understanding about international students’ adjustment problems. However, none of the related studies in Taiwan dealt with the problems experienced by the international students in a vocational university. As more vocational colleges/universities plan to recruit international students, accumulating related knowledge is imperative for the future students and the success of the international program.
The purpose of this study was to understand Vietnamese students’ experiences in a vocational university. The qualitative exploratory approach was appropriate to explore various aspects of students’ adjustment issues and interpret the students’ experiences.
The Site and Participant Selection
The site of the study was a vocational university in an urban center. The vocational university has three colleges, with more than 500 faculty and staff and a student population of more than 6,000. The Vietnamese students in this study were the first systematic group of international students ever pursued for graduate degrees in the history of the university. Following the tradition of vocational education which has focused on job-oriented training, the university aimed to provide the Vietnamese students with academic as well as practical knowledge of business administration. This program provided an excellent opportunity for studying the international students’ adjustment concerns in a vocational university and the implications for the administration.
The majority of the Vietnamese students were mainly recruited from a Vietnamese university which has a bounding agreement with the vocational university. Under the agreement, the students would return to the university to work as lecturers after they completed the study in Taiwan. Only a handful of students were not recruited under this agreement. All the students, except one, paid their own tuitions and the rent of the dormitory at a lump sum of USD6,000 for three semesters. According to the students, the
cost was very high in relation to the average annual income of only USD1,200 for a Vietnamese family.
The English MBA program was tailored specifically for this group of students. The courses were taught in English and were not integrated with the regular MBA program offered for the local graduate students. The university also provided a computer laboratory exclusively for the Vietnamese students with 24-hour access to the facility and the Internet service. Each student was assigned with his/her own computer in the laboratory. The students lived in a department-style dormitory, which was originally reserved for the faculty, with their fellow Vietnamese students, while the local university students lived in the student’s dormitories.
The population of the study was the twenty-two Vietnamese graduate students who studied in this vocational university. My initial contact with all the Vietnamese students was at their commencement. After a brief self-introduction and explanation about the study, fifteen of them agreed to be interviewed. Later, three of them decided to withdraw from the study when I contacted them again to set up the interview time. The final sample was twelve participants.
An informed consent form that outlined the purpose of the study, the research process, and a guarantee of confidentiality and anonymity was presented to each participant. The participants were asked to review and then sign the consent form if they approved the content. Each participant was assigned a pseudonym and the name was used throughout the data collection process and in the final written report.
The composite profile of the twelve participants was shown in Table 1 on the next page. The participants included six females and six males. They were quite homogenous in terms of their previous residency and job experiences. They were all from Northern Vietnam, who all had college degrees in business and finance related fields, except Don and Amber. All the participants, except Don and Lenny, were researchers in the government organizations or teaching assistant in the Vietnamese university which has the agreement with the vocational university. They all, except Don, had Chinese language lessons before they came to Taiwan.
Table 1. Composite profile of the participants
Participant Gender Age Marital status Length of studying Chinese
before came to Taiwan Previous Major
Amber F 27 Single 3 mos English
Amy F 27 Married 2 years (intermittently) Business Administration
Shannon F 26 Single 3 mos Business Administration
May F 24 Single 3 mos Economics
Jade F 29 Single 3 mos Foreign Trade and
Meg F 23 Single 5 mos Business Administration
Don M 31 Married None Biotech
Ian M 27 Single 2 mos Business Administration
Shawn M 27 Single 2 mos Finance and Accounting
Mike M 27 Single 6 mos Finance
Ben M 27 Single 3 mos Business Administration
Lenny M 34 Married 3 mos Banking
Data Collection and Analysis
Data was collected primarily through one on one interviews. I interviewed the participants with an interview guide (Johnson-Bailey & Cevero, 1996) which was composed of questions that centered on their experiences in the vocational university. The guide included the following seven questions:
1. Why did you decide to study in this university? 2. Describe your most difficult experience.
3. How did you deal with the difficulty? 4. Describe your most enjoyable experience. 5. Describe the advantages of the university. 6. Describe the disadvantages of the university.
7. What suggestions would you give to the university?
All interviews were conducted at a location convenient to the participants. The content of each interview was recorded and transcribed for analysis except for Don’s interview which was conducted via phone. Each participant was interviewed once, and the length of interviews was from 30-60 minutes. The interviews were conducted in English with some Chinese used intermittently. The quotations presented in the findings sections were edited after correcting grammatical errors in the participants’ discourse.
The constant comparative method was used to analyze all the participants’ answers as a group (Patton, 1990). By comparing and contrasting the participants’ answers, I was able to
examine both commonality and uniqueness of the participants’ experiences. The first step of the constant comparative method was to read all the transcripts for general meaning. The next step was to develop various codes and to categorize the codes. After developing categories, the next step was to contrast and compare the categories for emergent themes.
To ensure credibility, two techniques suggested by Merriam (1988), peer consultation, personal journal and research notes to clarify the researcher’s assumption and bias, were used. Peer consultation involves consulting with peers who are not involved in the research. A knowledgeable peer was consulted at different stages of the research process regarding the research process and the validity of the findings. In addition, I maintained a journal that incorporated personal insights, feelings and perceptions. The journal was useful in capturing the data collection process and identifying personal biases. Reflection and insights recorded in the journal were used in the data analysis.
The methodology in the study has several limitations. First, the study mainly depended on self-reported data. The perspectives from other informants, such as the faculty and staff members of the program and the participants’ friends were not included in the study. Secondly, the timing of the investigation coincided with the students’ final preparation for graduation. The students were extremely busy and felt quite stressed because of the preparation for graduation. They rejected the idea of member checks, namely, to check the accuracy of the transcripts and my analysis of the data (Merriam, 1988). Member checks would be helpful to further enhance the reliability of the study.
The analysis of data revealed five emergent themes: (1) Taiwan and the vocational university—The intentional destinations, (2) “They are like my adopted parents”—Support from the university, (3) “I speak English”—Communication problems on and off campus, (4) Friends of two kinds—Social support, (5) After all is said and done—Suggestions for the university. Each theme was discussed in the following.
Theme 1: Taiwan and the Vocational University—The Intentional
When the participants were asked about their decisions to study in this university, all of the participants cited two major reasons. One was about the advantages of studying in Taiwan and the other was about the attraction from the agreement between the vocational university and the university that the Vietnamese students graduated from or worked for.
student volunteers, again to encourage mutual interactions.
In conclusion, the presence of international students in vocational universities is mutual beneficial for the international students and the universities. For the students, they can learn the knowledge and skills essential for their career as well as gaining cross-cultural competence. For the vocational universities, the recruitment of international students can increase their visibility domestically and internationally. The faculty, staff, and students of the universities can all benefit from the language and cross-cultural exchanges.
However, the process of transforming a university to be truly international institution takes time, energy, and resources. Difficulties and resistance could occur especially at the early stage of the transformation. Once the mechanism of the international program is established, the outcome could be rewarding for everyone involving in the program.
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