By Alexander Huang

An exploration of practical steps to promote resiliency among Chinese international students – the largest group in Canada

The process of crossing borders for post-secondary purposes can be fraught with notable challenges. As Popadiuk and Arthur[1] emphasize, international students may encounter stressors that can similarly affect host culture students, such as academic and relational concerns, while also facing issues that are promoted by contextual and social changes. Prominent hindering experiences amongst the international student community include the loss of an established support network, the experience of ethnic discrimination, language acquisition difficulties, and cultural adjustment struggles.[2][3][4][5]

China has accounted for the largest influx of international students within Canada; students from China represent approximately 32.42% of the entire international student body, a population that is estimated to include roughly 290,000 individuals[6] spread across the various Canadian post-secondary campuses. Consequently, unique hindering experiences among Chinese international students have been studied, which can include barriers to engagement with host nationals, familial issues, challenges with help-seeking behaviours, and existential or life struggles.[7][8][9] These general and distinct challenges can easily give rise to an image of a vulnerable population, and indeed, research tends to depict international students as being more vulnerable towards developing psychological or mental distress.[10] However, in spite of these potential challenges, growing research has begun to highlight the possibility for positive transitional experiences, thus illustrating the capacity for individuals to adapt and thrive; in essence, to be resilient. In support of previous research, my graduate work, where I interviewed post-secondary Chinese international students about facilitating and hindering events related to their transition, appears to reinforce the belief that resiliency can be promoted through significant experiences, such as interactions with family and friends, encounters with institutional supports, turning points, and the acquisition of a purpose.

Family and friends

Resiliency research points to the importance of having supportive members who can assist in enabling one to develop positive adaptation skills.[11] In addition to offering reassurance, supportive family and friends can, more significantly, become models of resiliency so that individuals can learn to better address their own challenges. As one interviewee outlined, the experience of witnessing a paradigm of resiliency helped to promote the construct within her own circumstances, particularly as it related to finding work as an international student:

[A] really close friend…she’s trying to find a job here. For one year, she’s still not really settled down, but she’s still trying…and it makes me feel…nothing to lose…And also you feel companionship…I’m not alone trying…even though I get jobless, I’m not alone.

Simply observing a friend’s determination appeared to provide not only a sense of normalization towards one’s struggles surrounding the acquisition of work within a foreign country, but more importantly, the impetus towards continued persistence despite obstacles such as unfamiliarity with workplace norms, lack of work experiences in Canada, and inherent language barriers.

Capitalizing on institutional supports

When family and friends are not readily available, post-secondary institutions offer a plethora of resources which can assist with promoting resiliency. Although there may be some reticence regarding specialized forms of help-seeking,[12] some of the Chinese respondents discussed their experiences with select resource providers when they were unable to address a particular issue on their own. It was through these encounters that the individuals were afforded the opportunity to build relationships that not only addressed feelings such as loneliness, isolation or confusion, but also enhanced their knowledge within the host culture and nurtured a sense of safety and security to adopt novel behaviours. For example, one of the participants emphasized her meeting with a career advisor, who highlighted the importance of acquiring Canadian work experience and explained Canadian workplace expectations. Thus, the participant was encouraged to expand her behavioural repertoire in order to address her concerns. This incident offered clarification regarding requirements and expectations, and helped the individual “navigate through” the Canadian system, as opposed to being obstructed by it.

Turning points

A critical event for some respondents related to an instance where they had a decision to falter or to endure. One respondent conveyed this experienced moment of despair that produced a sense of perseverance:

I told myself I have my responsibility…I have my duty…my duty is I have to study here and I have to get my Master degree, so I cannot [say] ‘oh, because I get homesick, I want to go back to China’…I cannot do it because…I have responsibility to…study hard, and study here.

In the moment, the self-talk emphasized an obligation towards completing her pursuits and to not waver from the goal of attaining her degree within a Canadian post-secondary institution. Such expressed thoughts and goal reminders, therefore, can act as an additional motivating force that moves one beyond “being stuck” towards the possibility of flourishing.

A sense of purpose

A final notable experience relates to the discernment of a purpose. For some students, this event occurs through active participation with organizations that can expand one’s identity within, and perhaps beyond, the post-secondary context. Participation can stimulate a sense of belonging that facilitates a greater connection towards the larger host culture due to being a “part of something.” For example, one interviewee discussed her engagement with a club that promoted feelings of satisfaction and purpose, and combatted the fear of “becoming lost” among the vast population within the university context:

[It’s] not that significant overall, maybe compared to classes…but…you feel like you have a job…you have…a lot of potential to really develop yourself…you have purpose in this campus.

Although deemed as mundane, the experience of becoming involved with a club generated a reason for studying abroad, one that seemed to extend beyond the role of a student. This felt sense appeared to urge the participant to contribute her skills and resources, and as she described it, she was able to discover and develop her “niche” in the process. Not surprisingly, such purposeful action seemed to facilitate her transition process.

Practical implications

The intention of this research is to highlight the potential capacity for Chinese international students to thrive and lessen the emphasis on hindrances and challenges. As career practitioners, it is imperative that we continue to recognize and acknowledge the successes of these individuals – amidst the potential turmoil, there are glimmers of positive experiences that can promote resiliency. Career practitioners in particular can stimulate this construct in the following manner:

  • act as a conduit of information to help international students navigate a foreign country;
  • conceptualize the entirety of transitional experiences (by attending to both hindering and facilitating ones) so that individuals are not simply mired by their challenges, rather, they can also acknowledge helpful events that can stimulate their ability to thrive; and
  • advocate and implement ideas expressed by the international student community so that they can contribute and generate a sense of purpose, as opposed to feeling isolated and separated from the host culture.

Although the post-secondary transition process can be challenging for international students, it can also be seen as a rewarding enterprise where there is an opportunity to showcase one’s ability to grow and to thrive.


Alexander Huang is a Personal Counsellor at St. George’s School, a university preparatory school in Vancouver, BC. He has worked previously as a transition co-ordinator and learning resource teacher, assisting high school students and international students with diverse learning profiles. A research area of continued interest remains secondary and post-secondary students’ transitional experiences.

[1] Popadiuk, N. & Arthur, N. (2004). Counseling international students in Canadian schools. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 26(2), 125-145.
[2] Andrade, M. S. (2006). International students in English-speaking universities: Adjustment factors. Journal of Research in International Education, 5(2), 131-154.
[3] Bodycott, P. & Lai, A. (2012). The influence and implications of Chinese culture in the decision to undertake cross-border higher education. Journal of Studies in International Education, 16(3), 252-270.
[4] Poyrazli, S. & Kavanaugh, P. R., (2006). Marital status, ethnicity, academic achievement, and adjustment strains: The case of graduate international students. College of Student Journal, 40(4), 767-780.
[5] Yeh, C. J., & Inose, M. (2003). International students’ reported English fluency, social support satisfaction, and social connectedness as predictors of acculturative stress. Counselling psychology Quarterly, 16(1), 15-28.
[6] Canadian Bureau of International Education. (2014). Canada’s performance in international education. Retrieved December 27, 2014 from Canadian Bureau of International Education:
[7] Brown, L. & Brown J. (2009). Out of chaos, into a new identity: The transformative power of the international sojourn. Journal of the Society of Existential Analysis, 20(2), 341-361.
[8] Moores, L., & Popadiuk, N. (2011). Positive aspects of international student transitions: A qualitative inquiry. Journal of College Student Development, 52(3), 291-306.
[9] Yan, K., & Berliner, D.C. (2011). Chinese international students in the United States: Demographic trends, motivations, acculturation features and adjustment challenges. Asia Pacific Education Review, 12(2), 173-184.
[10] Moores, L., & Popadiuk, N. (2011). Positive aspects of international student transitions: A qualitative inquiry. Journal of College Student Development, 52(3), 291-306.
[11] deTerte, I., Becker, J., & Stephens, C. (2009). An integrated model for understanding and developing resilience in the face of adverse events. Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology, 3(1), 20-26.
[12] Brown, L. & Brown J. (2009). Out of chaos, into a new identity: The transformative power of the international sojourn. Journal of the Society of Existential Analysis, 20(2), 341-361.