International graduate students' risk and vulnerability to sexual violence and victimization

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University of Delaware
International students bring money to our economy, diversity to our classrooms, and talent to our graduate programs. Despite these benefits and their increasing representation on university campuses, international students are largely left out of research due to the complexity they bring to the research process compared to their domestic counterparts. For this reason, this dissertation project was greeted with skepticism because there was no research in the extant literature to indicate that international students, let alone international graduate students, faced victimization--or offending--risks on campus. This is not because there is no vulnerability, but because this population had been left out of our understandings of campus life. This dissertation seeks to understand certain acculturation processes of international graduate students and how it may affect their vulnerability to sexual violence (both victimization and offending issues) because this population has been overlooked in the literature. The existing research on international students indicates that their experiences are different than their domestic counterparts, and the sparse literature on graduate students indicates their experiences are different from their undergraduate counterparts. A specific focus on the intersection of these two identities, international graduate students, is almost completely absent from the literature. Due to the lack of research in this area, the sensitive nature of the subject and respondents' reticence in revealing their experiences, and cultural and language barriers, a mixed methods approach was best suited for the purpose of this study. Triangulation, meaning there were multiple approaches used to investigate the research topic (Corbin & Strauss, 2008), was achieved using in-depth interviews with institutional professionals (n=11), a survey of international graduate students (n=367), and in-depth interviews with a subset of female and male international graduate students (n=28). Together, the triangulation of data allows the findings to offer a more comprehensive understanding of international graduate students' experiences. The research questions that guided this project include: 1) how do international graduate students learn, encounter, and make sense of American college culture, including the drinking and hook up culture; 2) to what extent and how does international students' exposure/involvement in American college culture affect their risk or vulnerability to sexual assault; 3) how do other social locations (e.g., race, class, gender) of international graduate students influence their risk/vulnerability to sexual victimization; 4) how do international graduate students make sense of consent, and to what extent does their acculturation influence how they understand, use, and perceive consent; and, 5) what formal and informal help seeking behaviors do international graduate students utilize? The survey and the interview data indicate that international graduate students, both male and female, have experienced victimization since their arrival in the US. Their experiences include street harassment, sexual harassment, dating violence, and sexual assault, at the hands of advisors, bosses, coworkers, partners, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. All five of the research questions aimed to understand a small component of the overarching question: what factors, if any, make international graduate students vulnerable to victimization and perpetration? This research finds seven different components that may influence such vulnerability, including students' perceptions of the US, friendship groups, adjustment issues, help-seeking behaviors, alcohol, consent, and the hookup culture. This research project provides the first step in understanding the complexities of international graduate students' experiences and their vulnerability to sexual violence. It uncovered factors that influence students' vulnerability and isolation, as well as protective factors that help reduce their risk and provide support in the aftermath of victimization. In addition to adding new knowledge to the gender-based violence literature, these research findings add to our sociological understanding of intersectionality and gendered institutions. Finally, from this data, tangible recommendations for universities and colleges have been developed to address this issue.