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Cross-cultural adaptation of international students in Moroccan higher education: A case study of sub-Saharan African students at Mohammed I University

(Madison) Benachour Saidi - picture by k

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Morocco has been a host country for countless international students pursuing their higher education at different universities for many years. According to the Moroccan Agency for International Cooperation, 11,000 foreign students came to Morocco for the 2017-2018 academic year. The majority of those students come from sub-Saharan Africa on scholarships provided by the Kingdom of Morocco as part of cooperation agreements between Morocco and other African countries. These students come with specific linguistic and cultural repertoires different from those of the Moroccan culture. Drawing from the analysis of both qualitative and quantitative data, I have found that sub-Saharan students’ cross-cultural adaptation to the Moroccan mainstream culture is influenced by four factors, notably: host language competence and cultural awareness, interpersonal relationships, host receptivity, and intercultural communication competence.


Almost all the participants agreed on the fact that a lack of knowledge of the Moroccan dialect (a variant of Arabic) and culture posed for them some challenges in their daily lives. Highlighting language barriers, Ricardo from Mozambique reported: 


‘In the downtown some salespersons do not either speak French or English, so when I want to buy something I find it difficult to bargain due to my lack of Moroccan Arabic. Actually, a lack of a shared language was a barrier for me in such contexts.’ 


Similarly, some interviewees shared that most miscommunications between them and Moroccans were due to cultural differences in conveying meanings, rather than simply not sharing a spoken language. A participant stated: 


‘What I observed is that Moroccans tend to be indirect in some situations. It is up to you to decide what they actually mean, especially when they are hesitant to offer you something that you need. However, later on, I recognised they tend to be implicit because they want to save face and maintain a positive interpersonal relationship.’


The participants also concurred that the social networks that they established with the members of the host society during their sojourn improved their adaptation to Moroccan culture because of the psychological, cultural and academic support they provided. For instance, perceiving social contact with locals as a source of cultural learning, a participant shared:


‘Actually, having Moroccan friends helped me a lot in learning about the customs and values of their culture such as popular food, music, and traditional clothes. Upon a point in time, I became fond of the Moroccan couscous and I was learning how to cook it.’


In a similar vein, participants pointed out that establishing these social relationships eased their feelings of alienation and homesickness. A participant recounted:


‘At first, everything seemed strange for me: language, people and places. During the first months of my residence at a campus dormitory, I felt alone and homesick as I did not know anybody. The best thing I did was making local friends who really supported me socially and emotionally. Later on, some of them became very close to me. We were hanging out all together, discussing and teasing each other. Briefly, having Moroccan friends is very important for the integration of any new international student.’


For one group of interviewees, forming relationships with local people was perceived in terms of academic support. A participant commented:


‘I majored [in] physics. Initially, I faced many challenges related to theoretical and practical practices of the subjects. I used to go to the library on a regular basis. I got to know a lot of local as well as international students with the same major. We used to work together and spent too much time discussing modules-related issues. Actually, thanks to my engagement with them I got accustomed to my major and I progressed so fast.’


Host receptivity, which refers to the extent to which the host culture is inclusive or exclusive towards immigrants or migrants, is another factor shaping the cross-cultural adaptation of international students. Some participants reported that they found the local people to be genuinely open and helpful. For example, one participant expressed:


‘…In fact, the kindness and helpfulness of Moroccan students assisted me much in feeling more accepted and integrated into the Moroccan society.’


By contrast, other interviewees contended that they were discriminated against and not wholly welcomed by the Moroccan community. Attesting to the impact of feelings of discrimination on inhibiting their psychological and socio-cultural adaptation, a participant drearily said:


‘Sincerely, some local people affected my stay in a negative way. They used to label me ‘Mon Amis’, an expression which has a negative meaning for me. This word is used specifically for illegal migrants who beg in the streets. Also, there were many cases in which I felt not accepted in their minds in an indirect way because of my skin.’


With regard to intercultural communication competence – manifested in cultural empathy, prior cross-cultural contact, open-mindedness, and flexibility – all the respondents reflected on how it impacted their interactions with the local context. Mentioning the role of prior cross-cultural contacts in increasing one’s tolerance and appreciation of cultural differences, another participant said:


‘Thanks to my experiences in being in different countries (Algeria, Egypt, and Congo), I have learned that each culture has its own specific behaviours, beliefs and values. One has to be supportive and tolerant of the behaviours and life-style of the culture of people who are different from you. That is the perfect way of integration.’


To conclude, this study has revealed that sub-Saharan students are generally well adapted to the Moroccan culture, but with discrepant degrees vis-à-vis the abovementioned factors. In view of this discrepancy, I suggest a number of recommendations. First, higher education policymakers should think about internationalising higher education studies in order to meet the needs of international students from differing cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Second, international students should be equipped with special training programmes designed to teach them the basics of the local language, familiarise them with the host cultural norms and practices, and foster meaningful interactions with members of the host country. Third, international students should try to establish fruitful interpersonal relationships and engage in healthy interactions with members of the host country in order to make their experience in Morocco more rewarding. Lastly, for the cross-cultural adaptation of international students to be successful, host members should refine their views and attitudes towards foreign students. Likewise, both international and Moroccan students should develop their intercultural communication skills if they are aspiring to make intercultural contact a beneficial experience.

This article was based on research conducted as part of Benachour Saidi’s master’s thesis. To read the full version, please contact the author using this email:

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Benachour Saidi

Benachour Saidi is a Teacher Trainee at the Education Centre (CRMEF), Oujda, Morocco. His areas of interest include inter-cultural education, cross-cultural communication and discourse, and im/migration studies. He can be reached at this email:

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