International students, international communities

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I recently started a new job as Registrar at St Antony’s College, which is part of the University of Oxford. Each student at the University is a member of a College, and the College provides residential, pastoral and social facilities as well as providing teaching (for undergraduate students) and a base for researchers, seminars, conferences and so on. Many Colleges accept both undergraduate and postgraduate students whilst mine is one of seven postgrad-only Colleges. We specialise in international relations, politics, economics and history of particular parts of the world. St Antony’s is unique in that we host seven centres, each focussing on a different part of the world. Our student community is very international – around 85% of our students are from outside the UK. We also have a high number of visiting researchers, who come to work with our fellows as well as use the College’s fantastic library and academic/social resources.

One of the (many) things I like about St Antony’s is its cosmopolitan nature. Just yesterday I met with one of our former students from Chile, who is now head of the Chilean athletics team! Today I’ve been in touch with people in Norway, Pakistan as well as down the road in London, to name just a few places. Come the autumn term, there will be regular seminars on aspects of life and society around the world.

The international character of the College can be hugely beneficial for our student community, but it also leads me to thinking about how we integrate our students and what steps we can take to help them settle into life in the UK. Students who are new to the UK (and let’s not talk about the particular quirks of Oxford’s way of doing some things!) can have queries that range from big (help me with my student visa) to mundane (where can I buy bed sheets). What can my office – as well as the other student support services in College – do to make the path as smooth as we can for our students? And once we’ve done that, what we can we do to enhance their experience of being in Oxford, but without impinging on their main priority, which is to study?

Elisabeth Gareis has an interesting article in University World News this week looking at an aspect of the second question. She has investigated friendships between international students and host nationals, pointing out the positive effects such friendships can have: improved language skills, greater levels of well-being, enriched perspectives in the classroom and so on. However, the reality is that these kinds of friendships don’t exist as much as they should/could, and Gareis offers some good suggestions for institutions to help facilitate this.

She is absolutely right, though, to point out that ‘accountability also lies with the students themselves’. It’s hard work being an international student (I’ve been one myself and can testify to this!): continually putting in more effort than if you were studying in your home country and often dealing with cultural adjustments as well as changes to your study environment. But ultimately the experience you will have abroad will be much richer and more positive if you can make that extra effort to integrate yourself.

Nevertheless, the burden should not fall entirely on the international student. Host national students also need to try much harder to get on with their international colleagues. A Tajik friend of mine recently returned from studying in the US and said she didn’t make any American friends, and that is not for want of trying. At a recent Society for Research into Higher Education seminar, Paulo Pimentel Bótas of the University of Bath pointed out that UK students are often less well prepared to critically reflect on their own work than Chinese students brought up with the Confucian style of self-criticism before criticism of others. As such, host nationals can learn as much from nationals of other countries as international students themselves can learn – but the major challenge is to enthuse and engage home students to do that.

If you have examples of steps you have taken to integrate yourself as an international student, or things you have done as a home student to help international students, I’d love to hear about them.

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