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[CAPK Contribution #4] Phenomenological Experiences of Academic Acculturation of Bruneian Students in South Korea

*Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed in this article are solely the authors’ own and do not reflect the opinions or views of the ASEAN-Korea Centre or Council of ASEAN Professors in Korea.

*이 글에 표현된 의견 및 견해는 저자 개인의 의견으로 한-아세안센터 또는 주한 아세안 교수협의회의 공식의견과 무관함을 밝힙니다.



Phenomenological Experiences of Academic Acculturation of Bruneian Students in South Korea


Nur Atiqah Raduan




The academic acculturation of Southeast Asian students is critical to help ease the adjustment process for academic life in Korea and as a way to better attract talented workforce into Korea. On the other hand, it is also important for the development of Korean students’ intercultural competencies. This study seeks to examine the phenomenological lived experiences in the academic journey of 6 Bruneians who have graduated or studied in Korea for more than 3 years. Findings show that despite the positive outlook on their whole learning experiences, several challenges still remain, such as the feeling of being a “Waegukin” (foreigner) in learning spaces, difficulty in forming long term connections with Korean classmates, and being posed to either a ‘glass-ceiling’ expectation or a low academic expectation from professors and peers. Self-regulatory practices and learning pose as a critical coping mechanism to academic acculturative stress for these students. Finally, their adaptation to the “Palli-Palli (acting quickly)” culture and non-adaptation to the “Hwaesik (dining out) first intimate later” culture is eminent from the in-depth interviews. Implications can be drawn especially in terms of improving the ASEAN-Korea people-to-people exchanges.




South Korea has become one of the most important educational hubs in Asia and as policies for the internationalization of higher education in South Korea have been actively pursued, the number of international students in higher institutions has increased in recent years. The number of international students in higher education institutions and other training in Korea has seen a twofold increase from 85,923 in 2013 to 160,165 in 2019 (Korea National Index, 2019). As of 2020, among the 164,321 international students, the total number of Southeast Asian students coming to Korea for higher education including undergraduate, masters, doctoral, language studies, and other training programs accounts for about 64,319 people, or 39%, of the total incoming international students (ASEAN-Korea Centre, 2020). The highest proportion of incoming Southeast Asian students are Vietnamese students at about 58,828 (92%) and the lowest are Bruneians at 16 individuals (ASEAN-Korea Centre, 2020).


The small number of Bruneian students may reflect the nature of risk aversion traits that are common in individuals who have been brought up in predominantly Malay society (Blunt, 2012). Research in organizational behaviors has often described individuals in the Malay society as having the tendencies to avoid situations which they consider to be risky, new, and unpredictable (Blunt, 2012). In relation to that, Bruneian students prefer to pursue higher education in other English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom or Australia where the education system and examination providers are similar to that of Brunei’s education system. While some prefer to pursue higher education in nearby countries such as Malaysia or Singapore, that use English or Malay as a medium of instruction in universities. Such familiarity with both the learning systems and language mediums poses less risk to their academic adjustment. Meanwhile, past studies have shown that various risk factors hinder academic adjustments among international students in Korea including language barriers, perceived passive xenophobia, financial problems, discrimination, or negative stereotyping (Atteraya, 2021; Kwon, 2013; Jin, Yang and Zamudio 2021).


Taking into consideration the risk factors mentioned above, understanding the academic acculturation of Southeast Asian students in Korea is imperative for both Southeast Asian students and Korean students. Academic acculturation is an important factor that could affect the academic adjustment and hence the social and psychological wellbeing of international students while living abroad. The academic adjustment of international students and interactions with an international student will in turn aid in developing the Korean students’ intercultural competences` (Jon, 2013).


However, the lived experiences of Bruneian students abroad are not well documented and experiences in East Asian countries are especially scarce as most Bruneian students tend to opt to study in the UK or Australia. This study thus seeks to investigate:

1) The perceived challenges to Bruneian student’s acculturation in the Korean classroom setting; and

2) The changes that Bruneian students have chosen to adapt and not adapt to in the process of acculturing to the Korean education system.



Theoretical Framework of Academic Acculturation

Acculturation is contextualized as ‘‘…phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original cultural patterns of either or both groups’’ (Redfield et al., 1936, p.149). Generally, it is the process of transitioning into a new cultural space in which one’s own values, beliefs, expectations, and norms adapt and change to the host (Koneru et al., 2007). In this case, academic acculturation can be referred to as the process by which an international student lives through when exposed to a new learning culture in a new country. These experiences may change how they view and practice learning and education in Korea.


By contrast, an individual could either completely adapt and assimilate into a new culture while discarding their pre-existing beliefs, values, or practices; or maintain their own pre-existing beliefs, values, or practices while rejecting the host culture (Berry, 1992). A more realistic perspective is that an individual can retain an individual’s own pre-existing culture while adopting new values and practices. Yet these successful acculturations can be hindered by several acculturative stressors such as language barriers, difficulties in performing in the classroom such as doing assignments and sitting for exams, interpersonal relationships, discrimination, and also other issues related to their wellbeings, such as money or food (Smith and Khawaja, 2011).




The acculturation experiences of Bruneian students are examined using exploratory and reflective lenses through their phenomenological “lived experience” (Giorgi & Giorgi, 2008). Due to the low population of Bruneian students in Korea, a convenience sampling approach was used to select the participants. The data was collected through one-on-one and in-depth online interview sessions conducted through the Zoom platform where participants provided a detailed exploration of their recollections of studying experiences in Korea. Participants were asked for consent prior to the interview and open-ended questions were given as prompts during the interview session. While there is a general criterion of selecting students, the selected students for this study must have graduated from a Korean university within the last 5 years. The research participants consisted of 4 postgraduate students and 2 undergraduates. Most participants had spent the majority of their learning years in Brunei, including for their undergraduate years. Meanwhile, except for one participant whose classes were fully conducted in Korean, most participants have mentioned that their medium of instruction in classes was a mixture of English and Korean. All of the participants were recipients of the Korean Government Scholarship and had undergone one year of Korean language training program.



Limitation of the Study

The findings of this study are derived from the in-depth interviews of only Bruneian students who have completed their studies in Korea and thus the insights may not be reflective of other Southeast Asian Students. However, the findings could be used to understand and further discuss the academic acculturation of students from Southeast Asian nations which are mainly from the rentier economy or a predominantly Malay society.



Qualitative Findings

In-depth interviews with Bruneian students had provided a deeper understanding of their experiences as students in Korea. The major themes that were mentioned include having a mixed perception with regards to expectations, the majority of students identifying as being an outsider within the academic setting, using self-regulation as a coping mechanism, and the adaptation to the “palli palli” (acting quickly) culture and non-adaptation to the “hwaesik (dine out) first intimate later” culture.



Perception of professors and Korean students’ expectations on their academic performances

When sharing about their perceived academic expectations, the participants provided mixed narratives. One participant had recollected about the burden and pressure of being a recipient of scholarship in the class:

“The word ‘Scholarship’ in Korea holds a lot of value. For us, the word “scholarship” means you must have done well in your academics, but it doesn’t weigh a lot of capability that you have on your shoulder. But for them (Koreans) scholarship has very heavy meaning because for Koreans it’s so rare to get a scholarship. Whenever they know you are here to study, they think you are top student material and they have an extremely non-realistic expectation” (Undergraduate Student 1)


Similarly, another participant had also mentioned the burden of the high expectations that she set upon herself as to what it means of being the only Bruneian in the department:

“One of my professors said “you’re the first Bruneian in my class” I felt like I should do a good example as to show Bruneian. It did motivate you to study more but it is also difficult as some of the people in the courses didn’t know about Brunei a lot. It is difficult to get data from Brunei and sharing was a difficult struggle.” (Postgraduate Student 1)


Another participant also recounted the heavy expectations that is placed on international students in relation to language learning:

The learning process (of learning a language) is long, so if they (professors) are expecting us to master a language within a short period of time, it’s a wrong way to think. Even in our language terminology is hard… we are learning as well. They cannot expect us to be able to be in on par with the Koreans.” (Undergraduate Student 2)


However, half of the participants had reported a perceived lower expectation from professors towards them in comparison to the Korean students, potentially due to the fact that they are the only international students in their department or research laboratory. These perceived lower expectations had drawn in mixed feelings. On one side, being a minority student is viewed as an opportunity as they are able to overcome academic difficulty more easily than their Korean peers. One postgraduate student had recalled her thesis experiences as being less rigorous in comparison to her Korean colleagues:

“They think we are the lonely species that need to be pampered. I felt like they pass my thesis because they don’t want to see me anymore. It’s definitely more challenging for the Koreans. Their thesis topics was advised by the Korean supervisors and the process for getting approved is way more stringent than mine. There is a ‘communication barrier’ between professor and student but if it works to your advantage, then it’s okay” (Postgraduate Student 4)


However, at times some had also recollected a feeling of being isolated from the majority of the academic space as they are not able to hear detailed feedbacks on their academic performances or were not assigned to any research projects. A postgraduate student in the science field had recounted her experience of not receiving the same amount of workload as her peers:

“He didn’t expect much from a foreigner. He didn’t give me a lot of workloads compared to my Korean colleagues. My Korean colleagues had to stay whenever there is a big project” (Postgraduate Student 3)



Strong sense of being a “Waegukin” (foreigner) within the group

The Bruneian students that were interviewed for this study have expressed a strong sense of being the “Waegukin” (foreigner) group, not just within the learning space such as in the classroom or lab-setting but also, within the social space such as during “hwaeshik” (dining out) and or in general interactions outside of classes. This mostly stems from the fact that they are either the only international student or that they were one of the only few international students in their department. In terms of learning spaces, the majority of the participants had recounted difficulties in assimilating into groups within their own department or classes, especially with Korean classmates because the domestic students tend to have their own comfortable space within the learning environment. An undergraduate student had expressed her difficulty transitioning from a Bruneian high school into a Korean university in the early years of her undergraduate program:

“Inside the classroom, it is hard to mix in. For Korean students, a few months before they get into university, they already have a group chat or have friends which they are comfortable with. Koreans are more difficult to make friends with. They are at home university, and they are a bit more comfortable. For the undergraduates, they don’t tend to see lots of foreigners, especially for those living in Korea for long time.” (Undergraduate Student 1)


The interview findings are similar to studies by Moon (2016) which noted the difficulty in breaking the intimacy boundaries between international students and Korean students. In particular, his research showed that forming long-term friendships is challenging to international students and that the unwillingness of Korean students to accommodate international students in smaller groups has made their international counterparts feel disconnected or isolated. The experience of not being able to form intimate relations could be a reflection of “Passive Xenophobia” that is coined by Harrison and Peacock (2010). “Passive xenophobia” is represented by “a reluctance to act voluntarily with international students at anything beyond the most surface-level” or the act of sharing spaces with an invisible other but rarely sharing social or educational spaces (Harrison & Peacock, 2010).


However, the research participants did not view this as a discriminatory act by Koreans. This is because most international students are still able to seek more intimate connections and friendships with Korean students from departments that are different than their own. These friendships are from outside of the classroom and within other social environments such as extracurricular activities or conferences:

“Inside the university, when they (Korean students) came to the class they already have their own group since their undergraduate years. They are kind and they aren’t racist, but they are just too busy that they ignore the foreigners. Outside (of the classroom), we mingle differently than the ones in the department. We mingle more (with Korean students) outside of my department than inside.” (Undergraduate Student 2)


Yet, most of them mentioned that the inability to bond intimately with Korean colleagues or classmates is not much of an academic stressor to them. This is because having no close bond meant that they did not experience any serious conflicts or major arguments in the classroom or laboratory:

“With the Korean (students)- as we didn’t even bond properly so there are no problems (that arise between us).” (Postgraduate Student 3)


Although there are programs in place that help the acculturation and integration of international students, there is a general consensus that these programs have had not much effect on easing the challenges that they faced. For example, one participant had specifically described her experience of a “buddy” or mentoring program:

“They have foreign students mentoring program/buddy program…I feel like that buddy program doesn’t last long… the buddy you get assigned to is in the third or fourth year…I got students in the second year…he had to go into the army after so I couldn’t get much out for 3rd and 4th years. However, some departments such as liberal arts did pretty well in general with the buddy program. For us, we don’t get buddy pairing in science stream… you’re on your own. Thrown into the wild.” (Undergraduate Student 1)


However, these “buddy” programs are more dominant at the undergraduate level while students in the postgraduate level have had no experiences of participating in such mentorship programs which could have helped them assimilate to the Korean learning environment:

“For now, (Korean) education system is not really friendly to foreigners to help foreigners to adapt. People in (my) department do not treat foreigners well, there is no buddy program” (Postgraduate Student 3)



Self-regulatory learning as a coping mechanism

The majority of the participants mentioned self-regulation as part of their coping mechanism instead of seeking help from any programs available within their institutions. Self-regulation is defined by Bandura (1986 as cited in Schunk, 2008) as the “process of influencing the external environment by engaging in the functions of self-observations, self-judgments, and self-reaction”. In the case of these participants, these self-regulatory coping mechanisms refer to mostly self-regulated learning. Self-regulated learning could be defined as the behavior of adapting and regulating cognition and strategies, exhibited by students, to achieve a learning objective (Puustinen and Pulkkinen, 2001). An undergraduate had recalled her coping mechanisms to academic stress:

“Academic wise- instead of going out and partying…. I tend to be in a mindset of ‘how am I gonna fix this’. I will ask international friends to have study group and I am quick to make appointment with my friends.” (Undergraduate Student 1)

“I do a lot of self-studies which is very important to me… I remember like sometimes I go home and (get on to) YouTube to learn what exactly they have (taught).” (Postgraduate Student 2)



Adaptation to the “palli palli” (acting quickly) culture and non-adaptation to the “hwaesik (dine out) first intimate later” culture

When asked about what changes have they adapted to since they came to Korea, one common lifestyle change that the participants have adapted throughout their studies, and which has well become part of their work ethics even after graduation is the “palli palli” (acting quickly) culture. Their work ethics have become more efficient with regards to productivity and time:

“I have become a very impatient person, I do not tolerate delays in any shape or form. My perspective of time has changed in Korea. I don’t like people wasting my time.” (Postgraduate Student 4)


While one aspect that the majority of Bruneians do not adapt to is the “Hwaeshik (Dine out) first, intimate later” culture in Korean schools:

“Drinking culture… I don’t grow up drinking that much despite being Chinese in Brunei. They see drinking culture as important (and) as (the) first step to make a deeper connection in which I didn’t really participate a lot. Especially in the first year. They tend to revolve social relationships around alcohol.” (Undergraduate Student 1)


Although in terms of the “hwaeshik” (dine out) culture, one participant expressed the feeling of not being able to experience the full Korean learning experience as she tended to avoid eating out with professors and colleagues due to Islamic religious constraints:

“I had wish to go “hwaeshik” but that time was Ramadhan so I couldn’t experience on how different it was to interact with professors outside of the classroom” (Postgraduate Student 1)



Conclusion and policy implications

Several observations could be made from the lived experiences of Bruneian students in Korean universities. As a summary, firstly, the Bruneian students’ perception of professors having low academic expectations towards them was seen as an opportunity to perform well in a foreign university, as professors are more lenient to them. However, some students also felt isolated and were left out on opportunities to be included in major research projects or assignments. Secondly, although the students did not perceive any visible discriminatory acts during their stay in Korea and are still able to form friendships with Korean students outside of their academic field, the inability to bond intimately with Korean colleagues from the same field of study or department is apparent from the in-depth interviews. Lastly, the majority of the students mentioned dependence on “self-regulation” without seeking institutional help as a coping mechanism. This dependence may indicate either a lack of awareness on their part of the programs available within their own universities which are designated to help international students adapt to university life or the actual lack of effective programs provided by the university and/or their departments.


Southeast Asian students are comprised of a diverse group of students who are brought up in various economic and political backgrounds and receive education from various educational settings. As these qualitative findings are based on a small sample size of Bruneian students who had studied in Korean universities, these may not be representative of the whole Southeast Asian student communities and may be limited to Bruneian students. However, these findings may serve to highlight a deeper understanding of the perceptions of academic acculturation of students who came from a predominantly Malay and Muslim nation, or those born in a rentier economy where the K12 education system is heavily influenced by the British education system.


In spite of this, the observations from the Bruneian students mentioned above may thus be a good reference point to raise several general themes of discussions that could be considered for future educational policymaking or when designing educational programs for Southeast Asian students:



1) Improve inclusivity of Southeast Asian students in academic opportunities

Southeast Asian students including Bruneians have many opportunities to engage in cultural activities during their studies in Korea as there are various programs that are aimed at cultural exchanges. However, this may be untrue for professional or academic opportunities within their own research laboratory or classroom. In the findings, although the majority of the Bruneian participants perceived Korean professors as more lenient to them and their international student peers, some have mentioned that they are not being involved in other learning opportunities that may help them grow academically, such as for research projects or teaching assistantship where such opportunities are generally given to their Korean peers. The exclusions may be due to their lack of professional or academic proficiency in the Korean language as most research projects require researchers to be able to have a nearly native proficiency of the Korean language for academic writing. This is similarly cited in the study by Byun and Jung (2019) on the experiences of Southeast Asian science and engineering students in Korean universities. Factors that may have caused this marginalization of Southeast Asian students within the academic settings, through the Korean students’ and Korean professors’ perspectives, were also discussed in their study. One of the findings is the lack of willingness of Korean lab mates to invest time and effort in providing an inclusive educational environment for Southeast Asian students as to improve the time efficiency and productivity of the research projects (Byun and Jung, 2019).


Till recently, higher education institutions in Korea have pushed for more internationalization-related policies to promote its university at a global level (Cho and Palmer, 2013). Yet, by contrast, the prior studies and the narrative from these researches suggested that there is still a lack of resources that enables international students to be fully included as an equal academic peers to the Korean students in academic discussions and research opportunities within the departmental level.


This calls for a critical discussion on how to align the internationalization goals of the universities’ governing body to that of the stakeholders who are actually involved in its implementation, such as Korean professors and students. At the same time, it is imperative for related authorities to discuss a working guideline that could aid stakeholders in ensuring that Southeast Asian students obtain access to equal opportunities of learning and professional growth as their Korean peers.



2) Promoting the ‘Internationalization at Home (IaH)’ for Korean students.

Korean students are undeniably active in participating in international education, especially for language learning abroad or getting their academic degrees. However, a large number of Korean students also remained to pursue higher education domestically. Korean students can also reap the benefits of international education through ‘Internationalization at Home.’ ‘Internationalization at Home’ (IaH) shows an extended perspective of internationalization that is “beyond mobility”. Studies have shown that Korean students’ participation in international programs and their interactions with international students influence the intercultural competency of Korean students in a positive manner (Jon, 2009; Jon, 2013)


Similar in other countries, studies have shown that domestic students usually have an obvious reluctance to initiate interaction with international students due to the differences in culture, language barriers, and pressure for academic performance (Harrison and Peacock, 2010). These studies ring true to the experiences of Bruneian students in Korea whereby resilient relationships are harder to build between them and Korean students due to the reluctance and avoidance of the latter group. This may be further explained by the findings of Lee and Bailey (2020) which identified that the lack of interactions by Korean students with international students are caused by various reasons including indifferences towards international students, busy lifestyle, communication barriers, and negative perceptions that it is difficult to do group work with international students. Moreover, the unfamiliarity of Korean students, who are brought up in a homogenous society, to other ethnicities and cultures, is also a major factor that hinders interaction (Moon, 2016).


To address this, it would be meaningful to explore the possibilities of designing programs that promote the ‘Southeast Asian wave’ or Southeast Asian culture to Koreans from as early as the high school level as this would help form a sense of familiarity to Southeast Asia even prior to entering higher education institutions.



3) Promoting constructive and continuous interactions between Southeast Asian students and Korean students within their own academic field

The ASEAN-Korea Centre or other ASEAN-Korea related external bodies should play an active role in facilitating universities to increase programs that promote constructive interactions between Southeast Asian and Korean students within their own universities. There are undeniably many programs that are aimed at improving people-to-people exchanges such as those hosted by ASEAN-Korea Centre or the ASEAN Culture House. However, most of these programs are external and are designed to ease the acculturation and integration of Southeast Asian students into the Korean culture in a broader perspective. Moreover, the students that participate in these programs come from different disciplines of studies and across various universities. Attending these programs, therefore, does not reflect the ‘in the classroom’ or ‘in lab’ learning experiences for the students, as they still struggle with the feeling of being isolated from their domestic peers within their own departments and faculties. If these are not improved, it could lead to a lack of interest in long-term educational or professional collaborations between Southeast Asian students and Korean students.


Intervention programs in universities have proven to be a critical catalyst in promoting continuous engagements between domestic and international students during their studies and well after their graduation (Nesdale and Todd, 2000). This was also empirically proven to be similar in Korea (Jon, 2013). Programs such as ‘Intercultural Communication’ for local students and international students, such as that conducted in the first year of studies in United States colleges and universities, have shown to improve the transition of international students and communications with their local peers (Senyshyn, 2019). With respect to this, more considerations should be placed on creating programs that promote constructive cross-cultural interactions between Southeast Asians and Korean students across all levels within the education system, and not only between universities but also especially within their own respective faculties. Although students would benefit from a general program that aims to ease their social and cultural adjustments into Korea and their respective universities, the students also have different academic needs according to their field of study. Such programs should take into account the need for promoting the natural and constructive interactions between Korean and Southeast Asian students.


This study has also shown that the majority of Bruneian students resort to a reliance on their ownselves as a coping mechanism and do not utilize the available programs. A further scholarly inquiry on the factors that influence academic stress coping mechanisms for Bruneian students or other Southeast Asian students would be meaningful in understanding the effectiveness of current institutional programs that are aimed at easing international student academic acculturation.



About Author

Ms. Nur Atiqah Raduan is of Bruneian nationality who was recently conferred with a PhD in Agricultural and Vocational Education from the Seoul National University in August 2021. She also holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Biology from Swansea University in the UK and is an active advocate of youth development projects, both in Brunei Darussalam and in Southeast Asia.




브루나이 국적의 Nur Atiqah Raduan은 2021년 8월에 서울대학교에서 농산업교육과 박사를 수료했습니다. 저자는 영국의 Swansea University 에서 환경생물학 석사학위를 수여했으며, 브루나이와 동남아시에서 청소년개발프로젝트의 활동가입니다.




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