Abstract: Experience and Struggles of Being an International Student in a MSW Program (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Experience and Struggles of Being an International Student in a MSW Program

Sunday, January 20, 2019: 11:30 AM
Golden Gate 1, Lobby Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Areum Lee, MA, Graduate Student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St Louis, MO
Joonmo Kang, MA, Doctoral student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Background and Purpose

MSW programs in the US have been actively recruiting students from overseas. International students in higher education often face multifaceted challenges in school such as language barriers, different communication styles, school and cultural adjustment, social isolation, financial pressure, perceived discrimination, and overall cultural shocks. International students in the MSW programs face an additional challenge in their field practicum. The purpose of this study to explore the lived experience and the challenges of international MSW students in a large-sized top-ranked social work school.  


We recruited 15 participants using purposive sampling method to include international students from all continents. Our main methods of recruitment included snowball sampling and recruitment post on the School’s student Facebook group. Focus groups and semi-structure interviews were the main method data generation to address the following main elements: (a) motivations in pursuing an MSW (b) classroom experience (c) practicum experience (d) experience of microaggression / discrimination, and (e) experience of school programs designed for international students. This study conducted a thematic analysis to describe the experience of international students. The first cycle of coding started with a priori structural code, which was developed by the researchers to capture and organize data that fell into the main elements of the study (see above (a)~(e)). The second cycle of coding includes analytic coding within the coded data to capture themes that emerged from the data. Through an abductive process, we developed and refined our themes that emerged from the data and member checking with the interviewees was conducted to revisit the data.


Data analysis reveals four themes. First, international students perceived the lack of global awareness in school. They felt global issues were absent in the curriculum and there was a lack of interest in and understanding of issues from most faculty as well as domestic students. As a result, international students felt they are not included in the school’s diversity conversation. Second, many international students experienced a greater friction in participation than their domestic peers. Most international students struggled to actively participate in discussion-oriented class setting as well as group work due to language barrier and cultural difference. In this process they experienced a complex bundle of emotional struggles. Third, international students went through an identity crisis. With a lack of global competence in school, international students’ identities were often ignored and redefined by preconceived understanding of “other countries”. Hence, they had to continuously redefine and negotiate their identity. Fourth, international students experienced microaggression and discrimination on- and off- campus. Some international students showed frustration that they faced microaggressions which is emphasized in the social work curriculum.

Conclusion and Implications

Our study shows that even though international students come from different backgrounds, they go through similar struggles and constantly face the idea they are not “not one of us”. Also, the struggles international students experience involves a complex bundle of emotions and many other subtle aspects.