A month, a semester, a year or a few – no matter how much time international students spend on campus, not every minute there will consist of inspiring and challenging learning opportunities. And while the majority of any stay will be indeed spent reading, discussing, understanding new concepts and making experiments, studying abroad involves way much more than just plain education in a foreign country.
Education abroad is about achieving diversity and improving socially: immersing yourself in different cultures, sharing meals together, cracking jokes and trying to understand the references other people make. It’s about recognising and appreciating the fact that even though a lot of cultural aspects seem to be different, all people in the world have the same hopes, dreams and aspirations, need to be appreciated and respected and want to have fun and make the most out of their time.
International students are the natural ambassadors of their country and culture within the university setting. And since opinions are always subjective, sometimes two people you meet from the same foreign country can build quite different, even opposing impressions and attitudes towards the culture they represent: it all depends on the situation.
This blog post will focus on diversity: recognising the needs of international students once abroad, addressing the main problems they face and discussing some common solutions.
A picture of diversity
Different cultures focus on various values, and this is reflected and can be observed in the needs of international students coming from those cultures. For example, while people from Eastern Asia might have certain expectations towards a classroom setting, their classmates from France will have a totally different concept. The general picture we would like to offer here is based on currently available research data from the 3 countries in the world that host the largest volume of international students: the United States, Australia and United Kingdom.
International Student Needs Assessment run by Berkley International office concludes that among social and cultural concerns, 42.1% of undergraduate international students have trouble finding balance between their leisure and study activities, and 29.9% were worried about communicating clearly and being understood. Graduate international students have the same concerns: 40.4% of them felt uneasy about their study-free time balance while 32.2% were concerned about miscommunication. A very interesting finding was that 50% of undergraduate international students tended to perceive they were having a hard time relating to their professors, and 45.6% of students expressed concerns about insensitive treatment by faculty members.
Another research paper, International Students in Higher Education: Identification of Needs and Implications for Policy and Practice by Shideh Hanassab and Romeria Tidwell indicates that the needs of international students in the U.S. vary not only by their nationality but also by gender and study program. According to the paper, usually female students have bigger needs than their male counterparts, and graduate students asked for less support than undergraduates. In addition to that, it is explained that majors of science have the biggest needs in comparison to other fields of study.
A paper by Dr. Meeri Hellsten, “Students in Transition: Needs and Experiences of International Students in Australia” offers several important additions to the case study from the United States. International students in Australia raised the issue about return on investment: along with high tuition fees, they were expecting good results in a quality environment. And this is only reasonable: leaving your family and life as you know it to travel to another country at your own for a long period of time at such a young age is already hard enough. Add to that a substantial investment and you will agree that questioning such a decision already made would be unbearable. Every setback on the way – a crowded classroom, unhelpful international office or hostile classmates – will be taken with bitterness.
One of the conclusions is that international students highly value support by their university’s international office. Some of them even mentioned the need to see their consultants and lecturers as parent figures that are ready to always offer help, advice and support. To some extent, this could be related to one difference between the quite free Australian education system and the more conservative view on the student-teacher relationship in China and other Asian countries. Of course, the main differences here are due to different cultural practices. While the Australian educational system builds social skills and critical thinking, students from backgrounds with more constrained educational traditions find it difficult to grasp and follow the unfamiliar system and structure. Students that participated in the research in general were feeling positive towards the possibility to be part of a reputable university, live in a democratic and inclusive society and have good quality of life. The main issues they encountered were from the transition period, because for some, becoming part of a society functioning in a different way proved to be quite hard because of the cultural clash involved.
A paper by Patricia A. Lord and Dr. Chris Dawson discuss another example: The needs of Chinese and Indian students at postgraduate level in Thames Valley University, United Kingdom. According to this research, main factors that were influencing student choices vary from knowledge about the host county (i.e. seeing the quality of education in UK better than that in India or wanting to know Western culture better), personal recommendations, costs, environment (London as a preferable city). While most of the feedback was positive, international students mentioned miscommunication, culture shock (especially accents) and loneliness as something to be improved. Also, a suggestion for a “buddy system” was offered – an idea that would let students from the same country to share their different experiences and receive tips and help.
So, what are the needs of international students?
Attention during the transition period. The hardest time for an international student is right after the first day of school. All the questions have to be answered, and those answers should be available way before the student comes into campus. The first weeks should be dedicated to getting to know the environment and the classmates and immersing into the new surroundings.
Clear communication from university, local communities, other students and faculty. Students want to get all the information related to their studies, at the right time, without getting lost and confused. Also, students expect to be understood, to be able to follow a conversation in the local language and not to be frustrated by obscure local accents or verbosity during lectures.
Balance between study and leisure time. Students want to have time for both studying and relaxing, and get information how to do it properly, without one taking over the other.
Encouragement and support from lecturers and staff. Students need guidance not only related to study matters but also regarding general learning techniques and culture, without being judged and addressed poorly.
Value for the tuition. Students believe that for the time and money they invest into studying abroad they should get the best out of the whole experience. They need to believe that studying in a foreign was the right decision – both regarding the quality of education and inclusion into local life.
Cultural support groups. Different cultures are approaching the same topic or issue differently. The best solution here would come from other students that have already gone down the same road. Offering space for a mentoring programme or a support group, where students from the same cultural background can learn from each other would make a big difference.
Opportunities to learn about the culture. Many students see learning abroad as an opportunity to understand the culture of the host country better. Giving them a brochure and inviting them to a community event is not enough – this need has to be addressed extensively and on daily basis throughout their stay.
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