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Seeking Common Ground: First-Year U.S. University Students’ Experiences with Intercultural Interaction and Friendship in an On-Campus Residential Community


The number of international students on U.S. campuses has increased more than 84 percent over the past decade (IIE, 2016). Although it has been well-established that interaction and friendship with local students is a key element for international student adjustment to a foreign university, few studies have grappled with how these intercultural relationships develop, and even fewer have studied intercultural relationships from the domestic students’ point of view. This dissertation uses a qualitative case study approach to add to this small, but growing, body of literature. Grounded in a conceptual framework consisting of Allport’s (1954) contact hypothesis and its more recent updates by Pettigrew, Tropp, Wagner, and Christ (2011), and the principles of social identity theory (Brown, 2000; Tajfel, 1981) this study sought examine relationship development between domestic students and international students over the course of an academic year. Ten first-year domestic students with at least one international student roommate in a residential hall at UCLA were interviewed twice over the course of the year to gain insight into their intercultural interactions on campus, particularly the relationship(s) with their international roommate(s). The findings indicate that domestic students perceive and experience intercultural interaction and friendship as a complex process with multiple layers of facilitating and inhibiting factors. While the experience of living with an international student did offer domestic students a direct opportunity for intercultural interaction and friendship, sharing a living space alone was not enough to guarantee meaningful interaction or the development of any type of relationship. Multiple layers of facilitating and inhibiting factors played a significant role in the development of intercultural friendships. Perceived cultural similarity seemed to be the most salient of the facilitators, and perceived cultural distance the most potent of the inhibitors. Despite the lack of relationship development in some of the pairs, many participants did demonstrate signs of intercultural learning, at least conceptually, over the course of the year. However, many participants were still unsure how to apply the abstract concepts associated with diversity and interculturalism that they learned in concrete ways. The findings presented here suggest that in order to better facilitate intercultural interaction and friendship among a diverse student body, institutions may need to be more deliberate in their programming to offer students not only ways to increase their intercultural knowledge, but also opportunities to practice and develop their intercultural skills.

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