Researchers are increasingly encountering the need to accommodate diverse and multicultural environments as well as to apply their methods and results in unfamiliar cultures. This trend is particularly prevalent in disciplines that work with people directly, such as the social and psychological sciences. As such, the topic of evaluating and comparing cultures so that one can develop more appropriate methods for performing an activity depending on the environment that houses it. This paper will analyse a case study of two educational programs that are located in different cultures. It will use the work to compare the two ethnicities and explain the differences in their experiences and behaviours by using external sources. It will also evaluate the original case study’s methods and the potential issues that they may have introduced.
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The research uses two countries for its investigation: The United States of America and Romania. They have significantly different backgrounds, but share a broadly similar Western approach to education, with secular higher education institutions. The authors justify their approach by claiming that exchange programs between these two nations may take place in the future and that students and teachers should know what to expect (Szabo and Marian 2017). As such, they investigate the overall academic life of students in teacher education programs in both nations, putting a particular focus on stressors. Stress is a well-known factor that affects one’s academic performance and overall ability to function in an environment, but its culture-related effects can be reduced if one knows what to expect (Chen 2017). As such, the factors set out to determine the relevant stressors and compare them across the two nations.
The authors find that the two systems are similar in many aspects, with both having challenging curricula and presenting students with time management issues and other general stress sources. However, according to Szabo and Marian (2017), Romanian students have more conflict-related and self-imposed stressors than Americans, and there are considerable differences in the two nations’ general interpersonal practices and coping mechanisms. U.S. students tend to associate difficulties with unhealthy eating and the need to address excess weight, while Romanians respond behaviourally and emotionally. Szabo and Marian (2017) claim that there are gender differences between the stress responses of different students and that they were not the same for each country. The authors provide a variety of recommendations for administrators who may intend to create an international exchange program, including the development of relaxation methods and time management strategies.
It may be prudent to begin with an examination of the two countries from an emic perspective. There are some fundamental differences between the Romanian and American education systems that may inform the students’ attitudes to education. According to Ionescu, Dănălache and Grecu (2016), the European country’s higher education system is known internationally for the low cost and excellent quality of its services. As such, students will generally be concerned about academic success due to the strict nature of the programs that are designed to ensure that they obtain extensive knowledge about every course they take. They will also compete for better grades due to the potential benefits associated with them, such as scholarships and tuition reductions (Szabo and Marian 2017). As a result, students will enter conflicts about the best grades where they can be seen and worry about their performance relative to the others while it is unknown.
By contrast, the American education system is known for its high costs, which often force students to take out large loans. Samuels (2018) claims that many Americans are led to attend college by the promise of a better job than what they may be able to obtain without a degree, which is not necessarily true. As such, U.S. students are likely significantly less concerned about grades than Romanians because they expect higher education to teach them everything necessary to succeed in life. Moreover, they may be less concerned about low grades because colleges and universities are not motivated to expel them due to the financial incentive provided by high tuition. As a result, grades are considered mostly irrelevant, and students are not worried about their performance or that of their peers, unlike those in Romania.
Romania does not have the same perception of needing a bachelor’s or a master’s degree for one to obtain an excellent job. As Mihaela (2017) notes, many graduates in the country are overqualified for their current jobs, and the proportion of students has dropped from the values it has held in the early 2000s. As a result, the people who choose to enrol in higher education rather than obtain an entry-level position immediately after high school tend to have a specific purpose in mind. The universities are aware of the needs of their students as well and provide a thorough, if somewhat difficult, curriculum. Romanians are aware that they are going to face difficulties in preparation and selection oner others for professions with higher basic requirements and therefore higher prospects. This understanding adds to their stress and competition, as they want to ensure that their learning is not wasted in an unsuitable position as a result of a failure.
It is also possible to apply an etic perspective to the two countries to try to understand why the two peoples show different reactions to stressors. The United States is well known for its obesity epidemic, particularly as associated with its effects on younger populations. Power (2016) highlights the high incidence of eating disorders in American students as well as their emergence as a response to stress. This finding is consistent with the results of Szabo and Marian’s (2017) study that American students increase their unhealthy eating and simultaneously become more aware that they have to exercise. This tendency is likely the result of the United States’ simultaneous obesity epidemic and the stigma surrounding excess weight (Power 2016). It ultimately reflects a broader tendency in the nation’s culture, with eating being a popular response to stress among many people in the country.
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The study finds Romanian students to show lower scores in this characteristic and use different responses to stress. Iorga, Pop, Muraru and Ioan (2019) note that despite the increasing obesity in Romania, none of the students in the sample had the disorder, and the prevalence of eating disorders was low overall. Szabo and Marian (2017) claim that male students in the country use behavioural reactions, while females prefer emotional ones. Notably, according to Roman et al. (2015), obesity in Romania is mainly associated with older populations and their tendencies of physical inactivity and eating while watching television, while young people, in general, have low obesity rates. It appears that Romanian students are affected by the dramatic cultural change that occurred in the nation in the late 20th century and do not follow the tendencies of the prior generations, unlike Americans.
Overall, it appears that despite the generally negative attitude towards obesity in the United States, the nation has embraced the trend in most of its population categories. As such, unhealthy eating has become normalised as a stress response, and students frequently resolve to it. Meanwhile, in Romania, there is less mass culture negativity surrounding the phenomenon, but people are less accustomed to using it for stress management. Instead, excessive eating is associated with older populations and lifestyles that are uncommon among younger age categories, such as television consumption. Romanians are used to less consumption-related stress management methods, possibly as a result of the differences between the two countries’ economic conditions in the past and present. The specific mechanisms that are prevalent in the European nation and their differences with the American tendencies will be discussed below.
There exist differences in stress management due to the ways that the two nations handle personal relationships. Szabo and Marian (2017) devote some attention to the discussion of how the phrase ‘How are you’ will provoke significantly different responses in American and Romanian students. The former will regard it as a greeting and ignore the question, while the latter will see it as an invitation to disclose their situation at the time. One can assert that the practice emerged in the United States as a result of its overall culture of maintaining a higher interpersonal distance than in Romania. Continued refusals to answer the question due to its perception as an invasion of privacy have led to the phrase losing its meaning for Americans over time. Additional support for the notion, expressed from the viewpoint of international students and their perception of the local environment, will be provided below.
It can be challenging to evaluate interpersonal distance within a culture without an external reference point, and the example of an international student can be highly beneficial for the investigation. According to Zhang (2016), Chinese students in the United States often felt marginalised and were dismissed by their teachers and fellow American learners. While it is possible to assert that there existed some bias against foreigners, this theory loses part of its credibility due to the high numbers of foreign immigrants and minorities in the nation. Americans in general are likely less interested in interpersonal communication, particularly when intercultural communication difficulties emerge. Romania’s example of a higher acceptance of foreign people despite its generally higher cultural homogeneity can help support this notion.
On the whole, international students feel welcome in Romania, which informs the nation’s popularity with various international education programs. Socolov et al. (2017) claim that on the whole, they rate their communication experiences with administration, teachers and colleagues moderately highly and like their overall experience. This tendency takes place despite the trend of these international students to speak English instead of Romanian and intend to leave the country after graduation, whereas many students in the United States would like to stay. It is possible to surmise that Romania has a higher acceptance of international students than the United States. One can further assume that this difference is informed by an overall tendency to form closer relationships and support each other. As such, they tend to create social support for all students regardless of their nationality and use this framework to manage stress by sharing their feelings.
This tendency stands in contrast to the American focus on individualism that makes people there less likely to help each other and force them to resort to eating. Students in the United States generally do not share their difficulties with others, and others tend to not inquire into matters that do not concern them directly. As a result, the person is left to deal with their issues and does not generally receive help, either social or professional. As a result, people tend to resort to food as a well-known and easily accessible source of gratification, which they see as a way to handle stress. However, they also recognise this behaviour as unhealthy and realise that they are gaining weight, becoming concerned over it but doing nothing to address the issue.
On the other hand, Romanians are more open to sharing their feelings, though they respect one’s privacy and do not pry. As a result, when people seek support, they can find it from their peers. Moreover, teachers and administrators are more likely to listen to one’s difficulties and accommodate the person rather than dismiss them. As a result, Romanians, in general, are more open to using emotions and behaviours as outlets for their stress than Americans. They have less need to eat food as a trouble management method as a result. It is possible that the nation’s overall eating habits, which are less focused on unhealthy products such as fast food than in the overseas country, contribute to the difference. Overall, this difference in attitude can explain a significant portion of the study’s findings in the cultural context.
The discussion above assumes that the results of the study conducted by Szabo and Marian are valid. As such, it is essential to analyse the methods and procedures of the research to ensure that they guarantee high accuracy. Szabo and Marian (2017) define their work as a mixed-method exploratory study, where students filled out surveys, and then some of them formed focus groups and participated in open-form discussions. The authors use an adjusted version of the Student-Life Stress Inventory, an established instrument, to gather results in the first stage. The second phase consisted of in-group discussions followed by interviews where particular results of the testing were discussed. While the study’s overall structure appears to be sound, some aspects warrant additional questioning.
The mixed-method qualitative and quantitative design may enable a more accurate picture of the overall situation. The initial quantitative survey can highlight specific topics that require attention, provided the researchers analyse the theory sufficiently to provide a sufficiently broad range of theoretical issues. Then, the qualitative discussion can help the authors learn more details about these concerns and possibly establish additional connections based on the responses. Szabo and Marian (2017) use their approach to provide some context to their findings, but do not realise it fully. The qualitative approach serves to confirm the results of the survey through direct discussion with focus groups but does not provide much further context. Instead, the authors refer to literature and the general context such as the differences in how Americans and Romanians treat the phrase ‘How are you’.
The failure of the authors to employ their methods to their full potential may be related to the complexity of the mixed-methods approach. Hox, De Leeuw and Klausch (2015) highlight a range of issues that can introduce error into the measurement despite the advantages of mixed-method surveys. It is possible that the authors devoted too much effort into trying to minimise these negative factors and could not focus on its advantages as a result. In this case, the methodology may have harmed the study instead of helping it by introducing additional effort that did not improve the overall quality of the study or introduce much additional information. Moreover, the validity of the extra information may be called into question due to the small sample size of the qualitative group.
The number of people that participated in the initial survey is adequate to produce accurate results. As Szabo and Marian (2017) claim, there were 175 American students and 104 Romanians in the survey. With this number of participants, any significant outliers should be minimised, and the results should converge on average values. As such, even though the samples for the two nations vary in size significantly, they should produce comparable results. The Cronbach Alpha coefficients for the test are between 0.7 and 0.87 as a result, which is satisfactory for the instrument’s usage (MacFarlane, Veach and LeRoy 2014). As such, the confirmation of both the sufficient sample size and the validity of the instrument used for the survey make it likely that the first part of the survey produced accurate results.
With that said, the authors highlight a critical deficiency in their approach, which consists of their choice to only recruit students from two universities. The decision is likely the result of lacking time and resources, as they would have to obtain separate approval and find more students for their research. Nevertheless, the limitation severely reduces the generalisability of the results because it only considers two isolated environments without any opportunity to compare them to other locations within the same culture. It should also be noted that while Szabo and Marian (2017) claim that the students in the two programs had comparable curricula, the nature of the programs is not disclosed. As such, it is not possible to evaluate whether the nature of the study programs affected the overall stress that they were undergoing. Other majors may be associated with different stress patterns that invalidate the results of the study when they are applied.
The qualitative part of the research had a much smaller sample size than the survey, a factor that may have affected its accuracy negatively. According to Szabo and Marian (2017), each of the two nations had two focus groups that consisted of five to eight people. This fact means that there were ten to sixteen participants per nation, and as they were given some time to converse and equalise their opinions, the accuracy may have been muddled further. The authors were likely aware of this weakness in the study and unable due to resource limitations. This issue may also be the reason why they did not extract a high amount of additional information from the interviews. These findings would likely be highly biased and generally unusable due to their low accuracy.
Individual interviews without a focus group aspect would likely have served the purpose of the researchers better. As Stage and Manning (2016) note, focus groups are good for in-depth discussions and clarifications but are prone to distraction, particularly in the absence of a skilled moderator or the presence of dominant personalities. The authors did not obtain much new information from the qualitative stage, possibly because they did not intend to. As such, the focus group method did not result in significant benefit but introduced an additional potential for error. It may have been better to interview the different students who ultimately formed the focus groups without letting them influence each other. Furthermore, in this particular case, focus groups may have caused additional harm due to the specifics of the study.
As established above, Romanians and Americans differ in terms of emotional distance. As such, they may have shown different tendencies in the disclosure of their stress-related feelings. Romanians may influence each other more than Americans, introducing a higher degree of disparity between the two groups. As such, the study fails to account for the differences between the two cultures despite its intention being to analyse them. The focus group method does not enhance the results considerably and may affect them negatively instead. Moreover, with the small sample size for the qualitative part of the study and the limited resources that introduce other limitations, the usage of a mixed-methods approach does not appear to be beneficial for the study. It introduces many potential biases without improving the results of the research in a meaningful manner.
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The choice of the time for the study is also concerning, as it may not represent life and stress in higher education institutions. Szabo and Marian (2017) justified their choice of the middle of the term when no tests were taking place for the evaluation by the claim that the level of stressors during this period is average. It is true that stress levels escalate as tests approach and that students may begin being affected by different factors. Moreover, Szabo and Marian (2017) cite the low attendance rate of participants during these periods. It is likely because of the need to prepare, which reduces the students’ free time and occupies them with matters other than survey participation. However, the authors should have tried to accommodate different times, the test period in particular, regardless.
The purpose of the study is to evaluate the experience of students in Romania and the United States, respectively. Moreover, as Kirp (2019) notes, the test period is responsible for many of college dropouts, in part due to the ability of failed tests to have adverse effects up to and including expulsion. As such, the stress is very high and can harm a person, especially when it is combined with other complicating factors. The picture of college life, when viewed from a psychological stressor-oriented perspective, is incomplete without an evaluation of the test period. Many students will only realise the need for support programs in such a situation, and they should be designed to accommodate these crises first and foremost. As such, the researchers should have included the test period into their analysis or cited relevant literature that discussed it.
With regards to ethics, the study appears to be generally satisfactory, though there are some issues. Szabo and Marian (2017) highlight that participation in the survey and the focus group discussions was voluntary as well as that all participants were at least 19 years old. As such, there should be no issues concerning consent, as all participants were adults and chose to take part. However, the researchers neglect to mention whether they explained the study to the students adequately. It is likely that they have done so but did not include the mention in the paper. Moreover, they do not discuss obtaining permission from an ethics board to conduct their research despite working with people directly. Once more, it is likely that they collaborated with two universities directly and had permission, but the paper has a disclosure problem.
The authors respect the privacy of the participants, only mentioning the sample sizes and the gender distributions within them. It should be noted that they collect demographic data on students but do not disclose it or appear to use it meaningfully. As mentioned above, this tendency may have been excessive, and the reader does not learn either the names of the specific facilities involved or the general details of the study programs where the students are enrolled. This non-disclosure may be the result of specific requests by the two facilities to omit their names, in which case the conduct of the authors is ethical. However, it lowers the value and applicability of the paper in any case because the reference frame for it is too broad and complicates any comparisons. Even so, the authors have observed privacy-related ethics, and there should be no concerns regarding the matter.
Lastly, the disclosure issues of the other sections also affect the critical discussion and conclusion of the paper. The researchers discuss the limitations of the study, but they do not mention any possible conflicts of interest or the absence thereof. They also fail to mention any sources of funding, even though it is likely that they would have needed resources to operate in both Romania and the United States. These omissions are particularly notable because Szabo and Marian (2017) claim that administrators in Romania used the study’s results to improve their exchange programs. According to Israel (2015), many agencies either recommend or require that researchers disclose conflicts of interest. Overall, doing so is part of standard practice for research, and the absence of these sections is concerning from an ethics standpoint.
The study finds some differences between Romanian and American student stress response mechanisms despite an overall similarity in how they handle it. This disparity can likely be explained by cultural differences in wealth and interpersonal distance in the two nations. Americans are more emotionally distant and used to unhealthy food consumption while Romanians are emotionally close and support each other, with overeating being prevalent in older populations. With regards to the research methods, the usage of mixed approaches may have been unnecessary, as they introduced additional effort without contributing much new information. However, the study’s most significant issues are in its ethics, which show a lack of disclosure that both makes the results challenging to apply and introduces concerns over the methods. With that said, those concerns may be the result of Romanian universities having different standards than those in other nations and not requiring some disclosure aspects.
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