International students’ social and ethnic identities, backgrounds, communication skills, and acculturation levels and the effects of these aspects on their academic performance and adjustment in host cultures have become an essential concern in higher education institutions worldwide [1
]. Evidence from Western higher education institutions has suggested that international students experience a higher level of psychological, social, and academic distress [2
]. Therefore, the extent to which acculturation stressors affect academic adjustment among international students in different cultural settings (i.e., non-Western contexts) requires similar scrutiny in order to better adapt the increasing number of international students to their host culture, such as the Republic of Korea (henceforth, South Korea).
Acculturation is a critical factor that affects immigrants’ health status (including psychological, somatic, and social aspects) while they are in the process of adjusting to a dominant culture [6
]. Furthermore, acculturation stressors cause a high level of distress for an individual in achieving desired outcomes in new cultural settings [6
]. For international students from non-English-speaking countries with lower socioeconomic status, they have increased difficulty in academic adjustment due to language-related barriers, cultural differences, and economic hardships. These students experience a significant level of acculturation stress, suffer from poor physical and mental health, and encounter challenges in academic achievement [7
]. For instance, in the United States of America, a growing number of studies demonstrated that ethnic minority students have a higher level of acculturation stress and difficulty in academic adjustment to mainstream U.S. educational institutions. Evidence suggested that Latina/o and Native American students are disadvantaged groups with lower academic adjustment potential due to their cultural heritage, speaking English in their native accent or dialects, and their sense of exclusion from U.S. educational institutions [10
]. Similar findings in Australia and Europe reported that a substantial number of students expressed distress, felt disconnected, encountered lower levels of social and academic integration, and experienced poor emotional wellbeing [4
Several aspects have been revealed as risk factors for academic adjustment among international students. Studies have found these risk factors to include cultural norms, language barriers, perceived discrimination, financial problems, work restrictions, higher tuition fees, accommodation, and transportation problems [5
]. For example, Turkish Muslim students who participated in the Erasmus student exchange to a European country had difficulty adjusting due to fear of the unknown, loneliness, food shock, and being an object of suspicion [2
]. These risk factors, or stressors, further exacerbate international students’ acculturation stress, impacting their academic adjustment capability and performance in higher education institutions.
Abundant evidence from previous studies has shown that among immigrants, refugees, and international students, there is an association of acculturation stressors with ill (mental) health status, substance dependency, social maladaptation, and hindrances to achieving their desired goals in a host society [14
]. For instance, a study conducted among Korean international students living in the Pittsburgh area found that acculturation stressors were strongly correlated to poor mental health status [15
]. Correspondingly, Berry, Kim, Minde, and Mok [6
] presented the theoretical model that psychosocial factors of the host country both mediate and moderate the relationship between acculturation and the mental health of the immigrants. Immigrants, including refugees, migrant workers, and international students who had difficulty with psychosocial adjustment could not cope with life changes in the host culture. In such contexts, they experience acculturation stress; if the stress is severe, they develop mental health problems, making them unable to perform desired activities in the host country context.
Context of South Korea
With a population of around 51.63 million, South Korea historically emphasized educational attainment for its citizens even in times of economic hardship. By the end of the Korean War (1950–1953), the Korean Peninsula gradually overcame its absolute poverty and has now transformed into a prosperous country. Today, South Korea is known as the “Asian Tiger”, ranking fourth in Asia and 10th in the world economy. The socioeconomic transformation from a poverty-stricken society to prosperity is a result of Confucian values of diligence and importance given to educational attainment and rapid expansion of higher education institutions [16
Economic advancement in South Korea led to the internationalization of South Korean higher education institutions, adding to Korean higher education’s global competency. Consequently, South Korea experienced a quantitative expansion of international students, as there were 4000 international students in 2004, which increased to 85,923 in 2011 [17
]. As of January 2020, a total of 118,342 international students were in South Korea, the majority of them from Asia, including China (59,720), Vietnam (18,640), Mongolia (5788), Nepal (1964), and Japan (1919)—ranking Nepal as the fourth-largest contributor to the population of international students in South Korea [18
]. Moreover, the South Korean government has announced a plan to increase the number of international students to 200,000 by 2023, with the goal of making South Korea an educational hub in Asia.
Along with the increasing number of international students in South Korea and positioning South Korea as an educational hub, the South Korean government attempted to improve academic competencies via various policy innovations, including the Brain Korea 21 Project, World Class University Project, Humanity Korea, Social Science Korea, University for Creative Korea, and BrainKorea21 Plus [19
]. Additionally, the National Research Foundation of Korea provides various research funds to assist university professors and students (including international students) in enhancing their academic performance and competency in South Korean higher education institutions. Specifically, South Korea attempts to extend itself in knowledge economics by strengthening its academic competitiveness at different levels (including at the university, faculty, and student level). To do so, the country invested US$
73.3 billion for research and development to strengthen higher education institutions to a “global standard” [20
]. Along with all these efforts, how well international students are adjusted in South Korean academic institutions is an essential concern for policymakers and educational researchers.
] recognized that with the increasing number of international students in South Korea, international students’ academic adjustment is critical to ensuring that Korean students develop intercultural learning. However, international students’ academic adjustment issues in South Korea have not been well-documented. Specifically, most relevant studies were conducted in the Korean language and emphasized Chinese students’ acculturation issues; of these studies, results were mixed in terms of acculturation levels [22
]. For example, Lee, Jon, and Byun [24
] mentioned that Chinese students in South Korea were less accepted, felt discriminated against, and experienced negative stereotypes in comparison to students from North America and Europe. In contrast, Jon, Lee, and Byun [23
] revealed that Chinese students think of South Korea as an attractive destination due to scholarship opportunities, geographical proximity with China, employability after graduation, safety and security, and easier visa accessibility than Japan and other Western countries. Consequently, Chinese students expressed increased academic satisfaction in terms of academic resources, facilities, and quality of instruction in South Korean higher education institutions. Similarly, Alemu and Cordier [25
] demonstrated that international students are generally satisfied in South Korean higher education institutions.
However, South Asian international students’ academic adjustment and integration in South Korea has not yet been considered outside of a study by Bhandari [26
], which analyzed the association between acculturation stressors and health-related quality of life. The current study attempts to fill this research gap by examining the acculturation stressors experienced by South Asian international students in South Korea. More specifically, the study examines the extent to which certain acculturation stressors affect Nepalese international students’ academic adjustment in South Korean higher education institutions.