How to Enhance International Students’ University Experiences: A View from Hungary

by Zsuzsanna Gál, MA, Juhász Gyula Faculty of Education, University of Szeged

How to Enhance International Students’  University Experiences: A View from Hungary
International Week flag parade on Mason's Fairfax campus

Throughout its more than 25 years of operation, the student counseling center of the University of Szeged has committed itself to the promotion of students’ overall physical and mental health well-being. Just like any human community, the students studying at the university’s 12 schools represent a variety of social groups. Therefore, they face a variety of academic challenges that depend partly on their chosen field of study (e.g., sciences versus humanities).

In addition to academic challenges, our students (like all university students around the world) face a number of developmental challenges. For example, they have to develop and consolidate their personal identities, separate from parents, adapt to various communities and social roles, establish and strengthen their social relations and networks, and plan a career path, which requires the development of their occupational and professional identities. Considering the rapidly changing intellectual, social, and economic challenges of modern life, these young adults need to begin during their university years to develop strategies for solving problems and managing conflicts. Because there are no universally applicable solutions to life’s problems, we offer a range of services to meet students’ individual needs and expectations. As an integrated service provision unit of the university, the center caters for any full-time student who has an active status during the academic year.

Since Hungary joined the European Union (EU) in 2004, the university has taken part in many EU-sponsored programs and has implemented various higher educational development projects. The student counseling center has taken an important role in implementing projects designed to diversify psychological and academic services toward the goal of preventing dropouts. The center offers email-based online counseling, face-to-face individual counseling, and services especially for disabled, disadvantaged or special needs students, including learning disabilities, physical disabilities, speech impairments, autism spectrum disorders, and other psychological development difficulties.

Intercultural Challenges for International Students

In addition to students from Hungary (approximately 17,000), our university serves more than 4,000 students from at least 115 other countries. This diversity leads to the question of how the needs of international students may differ from those of Hungarian students. Although most international students face many of the same challenges faced by students from Hungary, they face the additional challenge of integrating (at least temporarily) into a new social and cultural environment, as pointed out by Romanian psychologist Catalina Novac. In our counseling with international students we also emphasize how important it is for them to mature through their cross-cultural experience and to welcome this maturation and enriching process with openness. Although many may feel vulnerable and sensitive, they can learn to adapt and even become enriched by their experiences as “outsiders.” In our work, we try to make them aware that it is their choice whether they respond to these challenges with frustration and withdrawal or use the opportunity to achieve a greater understanding of both themselves and the world around them.

I was trained in what is sometimes called person-centered counseling, an approach developed by the late, influential psychologist Carl Rogers. Rogers believed that the individual is not a static, fixed entity but someone who is on the path to “becoming a person.” The word becoming suggests that life is a journey that includes adapting to change and finding new meanings through which people redefine their identities. In my role as a counselor, I get great joy when my international student clients gain deeper insight into the meaning of their experience and life and develop the courage to become the people they really want to be and to have the life that they really want. Because I have lived and studied in the United States and the United Kingdom several times, accompanying them in their adventure in exploring their individuality in a foreign environment is a shared and mutually enriching experience.

Problems Presented by International Students

We find it helpful to divide the problems of international students into two broad categories. The first includes studies-related problems. Many of these students face pressures from family and the requirements of financial aid grants and are at risk for overwork and burnout and the resultant damage to self-esteem. Many challenges arise due to the differences between Hungarian universities and those of many other countries in the evaluation system, hierarchic professorial system, faculty-student relations, and occasional incidents of discrimination. A common problem is “exam panic,” which can be partly the result of ineffective study and time-management strategies. Among our medical students in particular, a false or unrealistic career vision and professional identity and a low level of intrinsic motivation may cause alienation from their studies and can eventually lead to dropout.

The second main area where international students often face difficulties is building meaningful relationships. International students live in the state of temporariness and can feel marginalized because of clashing cultural and religious values. Consequently, they often suffer from the lack of intimate, long-lasting, and meaningful relationships, and often isolate themselves. Such disconnectedness and isolation, which can be a reaction to the challenges of cultural integration, can often be found in the background of the third category of challenges, psychological problems such as insomnia, anxiety, sadness, lack of alertness, crises of self-image and identity, loss of confidence, and sometimes even self-aggression, extreme diets, and also experimentation with drugs to deal with insecurity and poor social skills.

Feedback from International Students

In preparing for a conference on intercultural counseling, we asked international students at our university to share their thoughts how useful they had found the services they received at the counseling center. Some of their responses are below.

“Counseling has certainly met and maybe even exceeded my expectations. I was especially happy to receive some very practical help.”

“It was also good for me to hear that there are other students with the same problems as me.”

”Although there are a lot of cultural differences, I don’t feel it that much to be honest.”

”It was more than my expectations. I do not know the reason, sharing or something else. But it was helpful.”

”I put myself fully, not partially, in others' shoes, and learned to claim my needs and priorities and emphasize them rather than hide, delay or oppress them.”

”I had a knowing and well-educated counselor that made her to be flexible against cultural differences, understand them and accept them.” 

Having experienced the joys as well as anguishes of intercultural integration myself, I strongly believe that the experiences, as challenging as they can be, can greatly enrich one’s personal development. The transition that international students are urged to face up to can also be “the sacred space where growth can happen”.*

*Jean Clark, Change is boundaries dissolved, 1988, Norwich Centre for Personal Development

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Zsuzsanna Gál was born in Hungary (1962) and received her master’s degree in Teaching English and British Culture from the Faculty of Arts, University of Szeged. In the academic year of 1992/1993 she was a Hubert H. Humphry fellow at the public health department of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. As a British Council scholar, she earned her Person-Centered Counseling Diploma at Jordanhill Campus of Strathclyde University, Glasgow (1995). In addition to her teaching and advising activities, she has worked as a counselor at the student counseling center of the University of Szeged since its establishment in 1994, providing life-management skill counseling and well-being services for both Hungarian and international students.