Theme: Intercultural Competence in Education Contexts

DRAFT Understanding intercultural dynamics


“Making new friends, having volunteer and leadership opportunities, and finding a job were some of my happiest moments in New Zealand. I faced many challenges during my time here but having friends and a support group made a difference” – International Student


Teu Le Vā (nurturing interpersonal relationships) is a Pasifika concept that helps us to view the relational space we all share in the international education context. It gives attention to person-to-person dynamics that cultivate rich, respectful relationships. As education providers cultivate a healthy relational space, we begin to appreciate the intercultural challenges international learners wrestle with: “How are things done around here” and “How do I find a way to fit in?”.

Navigating a new culture is not a linear journey and every student experiences it in different ways. International students go through multiple transitions during their time in Aotearoa, New Zealand. These transitions are all different and require different interventions to better support students (See upcoming Support international student transitions topic). During these transitions, students are presented with some potential obstacles and facilitators in the process which are important for international education professionals to keep in mind. This is not a journey for the students to travel alone, but one where everyone has a role to play in making it a success. 

Understanding the nonlinear nature of this journey will help you better support students, design orientation programmes and create other programmes to enhance the student experience.

What does the international student experience look like? 

Students arrive in Aotearoa New Zealand with many expectations but also concerns. They are hoping to learn a new language, complete some studies, make new friends and settle into local life. Most students choose to study in another country hoping for a smooth process in which every day gets better as they learn the local language and a new way of living. However, that process can take many different shapes and expectations might not match the reality of the experience.

While the journey will look different for everyone, research and experience show that there are some key factors that will help students have a successful time in New Zealand and some factors that might hinder their success.

Let’s look at what helps and what doesn’t

In this journey we know there are some factors that will help or become potential obstacles so we need to be aware!

1. Individual strengths and qualities

Some of the moderating factors previous to arrival in the new culture are:

  • Existing language proficiency: the more comfortable students are with the use of English, the easier it will be for them to navigate life in the new culture. This will facilitate their performance in the course they choose, their ability to interact with the locals and find jobs, and primarily how to set up their lives in the new country. 
  • Motivations: research shows that students who are self-motivated to study in New Zealand rather than being asked by their parents to do so, or pushed due to troubled times in their home country, are most likely to succeed in the new environment (Demes, K.A. & Geeraert, N (2015).
  • Coping strategies: those students who are more comfortable applying problem solving as a coping mechanism and reaching out for local support seem to better navigate life in a new culture (Demes, K. A., & Geeraert, N. (2015). The Highs and Lows of a Cultural Transition: A Longitudinal Analysis of Sojourner Stress and Adaptation Across 50 Countries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109 (2), 316–337.).


2. Factors supporting students’ adjustment when in country

While language proficiency, motivations and existing coping mechanisms will continue to play a role during their time studying in Aotearoa New Zealand, local connectedness has proven to be one of the strongest predictors of positive adjustments of international students. Bethel and Ward’s work (2020) shows that the most important factor for international student transitions in New Zealand is connectedness with communities.

Local connectedness provides students with a sense of belonging and helps them navigate challenging times regarding studies, job searching and homesickness. Local connectedness has also shown to support long term well being and satisfaction.

Both pre-existing supportive factors and local connectedness will provide students with the best chance to “integrate” to New Zealand. Before we learn more about what integration means, let’s have a look at another model providing further insights into intercultural dynamics that can support students’ adjustment to the new culture.

A model to assist an understanding of intercultural dynamics

The ABCD model provides a helpful overview of the intercultural dynamics relevant to international students’ cross-border experiences. Ward and Szabó have introduced the A,B,C,D model to capture key factors involved in new settlers’ acculturation: 

A is for Affective 

This identifies the importance of different stress and coping strategies individuals or cultural groups employ when dealing with significant life changes. In the same way individuals deal with stress differently, cultures deal with stressful experiences differently.  New settlers from some countries can experience higher rates of loneliness and homesickness  than others when adjusting to a foreign culture (Ward,  2001). Cultural distance also affects the settlement experience. Research (Ward & Szabó, 2019) has pointed to some Asian international learners experiencing more challenges adjusting to New Zealand life than their North American or European peers due to greater differences between cultures.   

Management of stress is also impacted by expectations; more realistic expectations help to provide a buffer against culture shock. This is an important point for marketers promoting an educational experience to international students: don’t raise expectations to seal the deal.  Personality factors such as sense of personal control, flexibility, tolerance of ambiguity and resilience also influence an individual’s response to stress. 

B is for Behavioural 

This focus considers the behavioural rules and conventions in the host culture that it would be helpful for new settlers to learn and practise. International students who practise typical behaviours in the host country are more likely to learn how to interact more quickly and successfully. Simulations and role-plays are very useful tools for helping international students pick up behaviours that will enhance their connection with locals. The EXCELL programme (Barker, 2013) has been developed to assist new settlers with social competencies they need in different social contexts including engagement with lecturers, student peers, shopkeepers and checkout assistants.

Culture learning is more likely to occur if international students have day-to-day, naturally occurring opportunities to interact with locals. If the locals are reluctant to engage with students who appear to be ‘culturally Other’, then the benefits of natural day-to-day contact will be more limited.  Unsurprisingly, the cultural competencies of many international students strengthen the longer that they stay in New Zealand, and learners who are more extroverted are more successful in forming new social connections. 

C is for Cognitive 

An evolving self-identity is another important factor in adjustment.  As they settle into a new culture, international learners are confronted with questions of identity. An example would be ‘How do I keep my Brazilian-ness while I try to adapt to the New Zealand way of life?’ New settlers wrestle with how to affirm their heritage culture while seeking positive relations with the locals.

There are four different kinds of adjustment strategies that migrants and sojourners adopt to manage the stress of cross-border adjustment: integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalisation. The strategy that produces more positive outcomes for international learners is integration, and this will be explored more in the next section. In terms of forming a new cultural self, new settlers in the younger age groups are more open to experiencing and exploring the host culture. Those who prefer to stay long term (e.g. long-stay international students) have a preference for engaging with the host culture and are less inclined to retain a singular attachment to their heritage culture.

D is for Developmental processes

Development processes are integral to one’s identity formation. According to Ward, it appears that the cross-border experience can trigger something akin to an identity crisis for some and this is an area that needs further research. International students’ transition into a foreign context may disrupt the development of their identity formation and sense of continuity in life. For education providers this means that the ongoing development of tailored support services that enhance learners’ integration should become embedded in policy and practice. 

A model to help students integrate

Let’s unpack the meaning of integration. We are using integration as the term coined by the psychologist John Berry in his acculturation model. Berry introduced the model of acculturation to explain the process migrant individuals and groups go through when moving to a new culture. Acculturation refers to changes that take place as a result of contact with culturally dissimilar people, groups, and social influences (Gibson, 2001). Although these changes can take place as a result of almost any intercultural contact (Arnett, 2002), acculturation is most often studied in individuals living in countries or regions other than where they were born (Berry, 2006). This is a multidimensional process incorporating the confluence of heritage culture and the new culture.

The combination of how much value is placed in developing relationships with the local culture and on maintaining one’s cultural heritage, results in four acculturation strategies (see model below):

  • Assimilation: adopts the receiving culture and discards the heritage culture
  • Separation: rejects the receiving culture and retains the heritage culture
  • Integration: adopts the receiving culture and retains the heritage culture
  • Marginalisation: rejects both the heritage and receiving cultures.

Source: Berry (2013).

Integration has been found to be the most successful strategy in terms of long-term wellbeing and psychosocial adjustment. In recent years, with societies becoming more multicultural around the world, the integration strategy is being increasingly supported by policies and programmes. Berry uses the concept of ‘double engagement’ to show how new settlers integrate. Double engagement means that new settlers intuitively learn how to maintain their heritage culture while positively participating in the new/host culture. 

It is good for students to be able to maintain their cultural values, be proud of them and at the same time learn about and adopt New Zealand’s bicultural values. Yet international students are not alone in the acculturation process. The double engagement process (see model below) requires the local culture to provide the right environment for them to integrate and this is where all stakeholders can play a significant role. Le Vā, mahi tahi and kotahitanga are important values in this process where host families, teachers, peers and international education professionals can reach out and influence the outcomes of the experience.

Source: Berry (2013).

Individual characteristics are a contributing factor in adjustment. This was vividly shown in the 2007 film Waves which followed the lives of six Chinese international students adjusting to life in a New Zealand school (see Training and supporting homestay families).

It is not enough for the student to be willing to integrate. The local institution/community also needs to be ready to set the tone to make this possible. How important is it for your institution that students maintain their heritage culture and are proud of it? Research has shown that institutions that are ‘diversity responsive’, i.e. demonstrate a positive, proactive attitude towards their diverse learner cohorts, have a positive impact on international learners’ sense of belonging. How many opportunities do students have at your institution or organisation to develop a sense of belonging and cultural identity in, what is for them, a new foreign context? 

What does this mean for your programmes? 

We can think of the local society as the institution the student attends, the host family they live with and the larger local community. While you might not be able to control the students’ personality, their pre-existing motivations or the whole community, you can definitely work on some ‘whole of institution’ strategies and approaches that will help support students to integrate to New Zealand and have a successful experience. The risks of not doing so at the start need to be critiqued. 

Risk factors

There are some significant risks for education providers enrolling international students who do not carefully consider intercultural dynamics. These include impacts on international learner wellbeing and lost opportunities for domestic students. Decision makers need to be aware of the following risks if intercultural dynamics pass under the radar:

a. Marginalised learners

International learners are likely to experience alienation if their cultural adjustment needs are poorly understood. They will find it difficult to ‘break into’ the social and academic environments. It is not surprising if there is a lack of connection between international students’ help-seeking behaviours and institutional services that are geared broadly for domestic students. International students keenly feel the difficulties of making friends with local students. If they are not supported in comprehending local social cues and developing skills to socialise, inevitably their wellbeing will be  impacted. 

b. Lost opportunities for domestic learners

For the past thirty years, international students have enriched the learning experience in classrooms, lecture theatres, zoom meetings, laboratories, study groups and clubs. The funds of knowledge and cultural capital that international learners bring with them to the learning environment is increasingly evident. There has also been an increasing awareness that in many cases international students’ wealth of knowledge has been underutilised. An education provider that commits to whole-of-provider training that supports staff knowledge of cultural dynamics, including the adjustment experiences of international students and cross-border learners, will be opening up opportunities for richer interactions between international and domestic students

c. Weak internationalisation practice

The internationalisation of the curriculum is a common strategy and widely used catch-phrase. Coming to grips with the cultural values international students bring and making sense of their adjustment experiences is an excellent exercise in internationalising education practice.  One of the litmus tests of an internationalisation strategy is an institution’s tailored support provisions for international students. If tailored support is limited as intercultural dynamics are poorly understood, the stated commitment to internationalisation appears to lack authenticity.   

Prioritising a proactive approach 

How can you provide strong local support for your students? Not by leaving this to chance. Being proactive, intentional and well informed in your approach will set you up for success. Here are some areas to think about:

  • Cultural competency training for staff: A checklist to review your curriculum and staff training will be available from the upcoming Support international student transitions topic.
  • Support for homestay families and accommodation managers: students spend a considerable amount of their time with their host families and they are the main source of cultural information and they provide immediate support for the students. Equipping them with intercultural understanding and skills to navigate the differences will be crucial for student integration. Similarly, accommodation managers in ITP or university halls play an important role in assisting student’s settlement in their first 6-12 months in New Zealand. Supporting their intercultural capabilities will help them to offer timely support to their international student residents. See Training and supporting homestay families and the upcoming Providing tailored accommodation support for international students topic.
  • Campus initiatives, after school groups and peer to peer programmes: creating an environment at your institution filled with opportunities for engagement across cultural groups, activities to promote and celebrate diversity, and programmes to support language learning will create a sense of belonging for everyone, and help students to settle and fit into the local culture. See Enhancing intercultural relations for strategies to support international learners’ social connections.
  • Culturally appropriate mental health support: we have discussed how the international student journey will present plenty of highs and lows and providing timely and culturally appropriate support should be a key part of student services. You can explore this further in the upcoming Understand intercultural dimensions of care topic

All these initiatives will help students develop the local connectedness they need to succeed in their intercultural adventure.

A strategy to be culturally responsive

Teu Le Vā offers a blueprint for supporting international learner’s sense of belonging and connectedness. A focus on the quality of relational spaces we experience in the international education context protects against auto-pilot instincts in our day-to-day operations. It is important to engage in cultural learning to support international learners’ grasp of “how things are done around here”.

You might already be doing a great deal of work in helping your students integrate and make the best out of their time in New Zealand or you might be just starting. Have a look at this brief checklist about your current offering and plan for improvements to support students in their integration to New Zealand.


While the adaptation to New Zealand will not be a linear one, many factors can play either a positive or negative role in the international students’ experience. Proactive local support and a sense of connectedness, i.e. having friends and close relationships in New Zealand, are the most important factors in the adaptation process. 

It is very important that we plan our programmes and initiatives to make sure we support students in developing these local meaningful connections. Some of the many ways we can contribute to students’ successful integration include providing cultural competency training for staff and homestays and opportunities for students to engage in meaningful relationships with domestic students through your curriculum content (you can gain some inspiration in the Working with the teaching profession topic), campus initiatives and after school groups.



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Berry, J.W. (1980). Acculturation as varieties of adaptation. In A. M. Padilla (Ed.), Acculturation: Theory, models, and some new findings (pp. 9-26). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Berry, J.W. (1984). Cultural relations in plural societies: Alternatives to segregation and their socio-psychological implications. In N. Miller & M. Brewer (Eds.). Groups in contact. New York: Academic Press.

Sam, D. L., & Berry, J. W. (Eds.). (2006). The Cambridge handbook of acculturation psychology. Cambridge University Press.

Berry, J. W. (2009). A critique of critical acculturation. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 33(5), 361-371.

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Barker, M. (2013). EXCELL.!/introduction

Arnett JJ. The psychology of globalization. American Psychologist. 2002;57:774–783.

Mesidor, J. K. and Sly, F. (2016). Factors that contribute to the adjustment of international students, Journal of International Students, 6:1, pp. 262–82.

Ministry of Education. (2022). Pacific values.

Ward, C. & Kim, I. (2020). Report to Oakley Mental Health Foundation: Does Diversity-Receptiveness in Educational Institutions Predict International Students’ Psychological and Social Well-being? [Unpublished manuscript]. Centre for Applied Cross-cultural Research, Victoria University of Wellington.

Ward, Colleen (2001). The A, B, Cs of acculturation. in D. Matsumoto (Ed.), The Handbook of Culture and Psychology (pp. 411–45). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ward, C. and Ágnes Szabó, Á. (2019). Affect, Behavior, Cognition, and Development: Adding to the Alphabet of Acculturation. In D. Matsumoto and & C. Hwang (Eds.), The handbook of culture and psychology (pp.640-691). Oxford University Press.

Demes, K. A., & Geeraert, N. (2015). The Highs and Lows of a Cultural Transition: A Longitudinal Analysis of Sojourner Stress and Adaptation Across 50 Countries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109 (2), 316–337.


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