Going to university for the first time, or embarking on graduate study, is a significant transition for anyone. Doing it in an unfamiliar country, where you have no support network, are unaccustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the daily life and daunted by an alien academic culture, can be overwhelming—and that’s before we even consider that you may be doing all this in a second language!
In a globally mobile world where international experience is increasingly valued and intercultural skills are crucial, universities are constantly reviewing and improving how they prepare and support their international students, using tools like Epigeum’s International Student Success course to give students the head start they need to not only succeed but to thrive. Providing a solid knowledge base and using real-life examples to prepare students for the highs and lows of studying in a new country, such resources can be extremely powerful when the learning is then complemented by on-campus initiatives—from orientations to excursions to buddy schemes—once the students arrive. While we do not have unlimited resources at our disposal—least of all time—there are a number of things we can bear in mind as we, as education practitioners, continue to support international students on their exciting journey with us.
1. Knowledge is power
There is a sort of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to studying in a new country: before students can thrive, they need a level of basic knowledge about the practical aspects of studying abroad, such as how to obtain a visa, how academic structures work, how assignments will be graded, what “plagiarism” means. They will also need to know how to function in their particular location—how to use local transport, where to buy food, where and how to ask for help. Once these needs are met—usually by a combination of pre-departure study such as International Student Success and in-country orientation and support—students are empowered to immerse themselves in their new environment.
2. Prepare for them to be unprepared
Even with the most conscientious preparation, anyone who finds themselves in a new environment—be they from Beijing, Boston, or Bradford—will inevitably come across situations that trip them up. Often as professionals we are so keen to impart every available bit of information to students that we forget to warn them that it is impossible to prepare for every eventuality. Being open to the unexpected is an important tool in anyone’s emotional armour and should be incorporated into any pre- or post-arrival activities.
3. Encourage involvement
When I have one-to-one meetings with my students, I always ask them what they’re doing outside of class. Despite our attempts to promote the plethora of clubs, societies and other activities at their disposal, it always surprises me how many say they don’t have time for such things as they need to focus solely on their academic work, or on means-to-an-end endeavours such as securing an internship. While these things are of course important, I stress to my students the many benefits of extra-curricular participation are many: not only does it help develop skills that cannot be learned in the classroom, it is also important to wellbeing. Friendships, and, in turn, increased cultural confidence, can be fostered through such activities. While we, as educational professionals, know this, how do we actually encourage students to take up these opportunities, and how could we do better?
4. Nurture the individual
Every person is different. As busy professionals—indeed, as human beings—it’s tempting to put students into categories, the most obvious being home students and international students. But each person brings their own unique set of experiences and unique culture with them when they come to the UK; their race, sexuality, gender identity, socioeconomic background, hometown, schooling, interests, and political outlook will all have contributed to who they are alongside their broader national identity.
Studying abroad is a huge exercise in self-discovery, and reflective activities that encourage students to explore their identities beyond national borders are important in helping them find their place in their new world. Many activities on the Epigeum course encourage students to think about how they, as individuals, would feel and react to certain situations, and continuing to nurture the individual and encourage each student to forge their own path can reap huge rewards for student and institution alike.
5. Be proactive
Learning and adjustments don’t end with pre-departure briefings or an orientation. I have worked at institutions that have fun wonderful orientation programmes, but those programmes end with a sense that when the students, armed with everything they will need to survive in a new world we have explained to them in painstaking detail, are released into the wild, our attentions immediately turning to the next cohort. Conversely, I have seen students many months into their programme who have found themselves in my office when some incident—academic failure or misconduct, health concerns, lack of attendance—flagged to us that they were not in fact thriving. Those students have told me that they didn’t feel they could seek help earlier as they “should” have been able to cope on their own, and saw asking for help as a sign of weakness. Anything we can do to prevent students feeling this way, such as occasional check-ins, open house events, and refresher orientation sessions, to encourage and normalise the idea of seeking help when needed can make a huge difference.