12 ways universities can support international students

It’s that time of year again, when students all over the world head off to university, many of them for the first time, to start a new life of study as an international student. For many, this is a time to make new friends, party and enjoy the novelty of life away from home. For some, though, particularly those arriving from another country or culture, university can be daunting and isolating. International students make a valuable contribution to all universities, both financially and culturally. So what can universities do to help them settle in.

  1. Most universities already have helpful systems in place to ease international students through the stress of induction week. Bristol University, as an example, has a special welcome programme for international students, in a dedicated area where they can meet student ambassadors, get to grips with the practical side of student life, like opening a UK bank account, and join events like campus tours, ‘British’ tea parties, walking tours of the city, ‘speed-friending’ and international meet-and-mingle events.
  2. Surveys of international students often say that while induction week is packed with social events, they often feel abandoned after that. Edinburgh University is a good example of a continuing support network for international students, via its International and Exchange Student Society (IESS), which organises country-themed events, subsidised sightseeing trips around Scotland, movie and pub nights, and is staffed by student volunteers.
  3. Mentoring and a student ambassador programme can be a big reassurance for international students. For example, Leeds University has an online programme whereby international students can connect with an ambassador from their course, country or culture before arriving at the university.
  4. Kingston University’s International Study Centre has developed a Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) scheme, whereby existing students help new international students with topics like preparing presentations, or by leading group discussions. PAL students are paid for their time and say the scheme helps with their own confidence and networking, as well as helping others.
  5. Pastoral support is important for students coming to a secular country like Britain from more religious backgrounds. At London School of Economics, as an example, the Faith Centre, offers religious and well being activities for students and tutors of all faiths, as well as promoting inter-faith understanding via extra-curricular lectures and discussions.
  6. When it comes to teaching, faculty across all disciplines could benefit from basic cross-cultural training to understand better how international students think and learn. It’s not just a matter of academic achievement and meeting the basic requirement for English language; students from different cultures have been taught to study in different ways. Asian students, for example, often go through school with a passive learning style, depending on the teacher to disseminate information and learning by rote. As such, they may struggle initially with independent research, or the notion of group discussions. If tutors receive training in global variations in the student learning experience, they can adjust their own teaching strategies.
  7. Tutors should understand that international students may be working unsupervised for the first time, as well as dealing with culture shock, and studying with no feedback until they hand in their first assignment, for which they have had to read and prepare in a foreign language. It is important not to underestimate the stress a new international student may experience.
  8. Universities should not assume that meeting the basic level of English is going to equip new international students with the technical vocabulary they may need for their course. Course-specific English language training can help. Again, Leeds University, which has more than 6,000 international students at any one time, offers pre-sessional English tuition as well as specially designed language courses for, as an example, medical students.
  9. Sometimes, overseas students benefit from going right back to the basics of how to study in a different culture. Topics that British students may take for granted could be new to them, for example, how to reference work, the meaning and consequences of plagiarism, how to make a presentation, how seminars function, and the need to overcome shyness to participate in discussion in a ‘safe’ space.
  10. Tutors need to have a broad understanding of non-verbal communication relevant to the nationalities they are teaching. For example, a tutor should be able to interpret the body language of, say, an Asian student, or a Middle Eastern student, and understand such issues as eye contact, or lack of, and what it means, or how to spot non-verbal clues that a student is upset, or frustrated.
  11. Finally, universities can look at what international students can bring to them, culturally speaking. At Nottingham Trent, a programme was introduced in 2017 whereby international students give talks to other students about their home country and culture, to promote greater understanding. International students can be seen as making a valuable contribution that is more than financial.

Diversity is inviting everyone to the party, inclusion is allowing everyone to dance; cultural intelligence is knowing how to join in.

Country Navigator is an industry-leading cross cultural tool which has been successfully integrated into curriculums and educational institutions all over the world to develop diversity and inclusion.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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