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International Students

International students form about a fifth of the students at the University of Reading. These may  range from younger European students here for a term on an Erasmus scholarship, to older postgraduate students from developing countries, and Higher Degree students here for three years or more, often with their families. Others are in the UK just for a few weeks on short programmes.

Culture shock

International students arrive in the UK from all parts of the globe and for many this is their first experience of living (and studying) in this society. Uprooted from the security of their home country, surroundings and culture and from the support provided by families and friends, adapting to their new environment is frequently much more difficult for members of the international students body than for those from the UK, and many may well experience varying degrees of culture shock (the descriptive label for the stress process which is common in adjusting to new customs, language, people and activities). There are various stages of culture shock:

Stage 1 First shock
The first few weeks of life in a new environment feel very strange, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Immediate problems like money, accommodation and food are the student's first priority. If the student is well prepared, any difficulties should be resolved within a short period of time (no more than two to three weeks). Other students might take longer to get through this stage.

Stage 2 Honeymoon
Without much delay, the student learns basic skills for the new situation, including where to stay and what to wear. They begin to feel the transition has been successfully accomplished although there may be periods of sadness (missing home) or worry.

Stage 3 Learning real differences
The student is becoming gradually aware of real differences between this new and old environment and particularly feels the absence of friends, familiar places and social activities. Feelings of self doubt, losing confidence and possibly increasing stress arise without a clear sense of where they are coming from. Students may doubt whether they can cope with the demands of having to conform to the behaviour of the host population. This stage occurs most often two to six months after living in the new culture.

Stage 4 Feeling bad
The student feels unhappy with everything and loses confidence in their academic and social skills.  Life becomes a constant burden.

Stage 5 Turning point: accepting and letting go
The student must now come to terms with the new situation, however difficult it is proving to be, and let go of some of their old experiences whilst retaining good memories from before the change of environment. It is important that they do not dwell on regrets or bad feelings.

Stage 6 Recovery
Once the student begins to accept the new environment (even though there are aspects which are not approved of) things improve quickly. The student may affiliate to new groups, start doing new activities and find their own place in the new environment.

Stage 7 New confidence
The student will feel in some way restored to good 'health', assured, relaxed and empathic and conscious of having met the challenge of adjustment. Individuals are now more socially and linguistically capable of negotiating most new and different social situations in the host culture.

Academic staff, particularly tutors, can adopt a supportive role during the early months of a student's arrival in the country and university; words of encouragement and reassurance that feelings of self doubt and loss are normal and will ultimately pass can greatly assist a return to 'health'. More difficult cases can be referred to the University's Counselling Service. It is therefore useful if tutors keep an eye out for those in trouble suffering from symptoms which correspond to those referred to above.

Cultural difference within the academic environment

Educational culture in higher education in the UK is based on the notion that students will develop independence and individuality with great emphasis placed on the value of self-expression and originality. This may be very alien to those students who come from structured, authoritarian educational backgrounds. Students may doubt the value of the programme, not understanding why they are not being 'taught'. Cultural or religious factors may make it difficult for some female students to participate in open discussion in the presence of males, or for a student to question points made by a Tutor (seen as a figure of authority to be respected). Students may be unfamiliar with the many technologies used in the University, and may need extra support to make full use of IT in their studies. Students are generally expected to take the initiative and ask for help, but some may feel unable to make such 'demands' out of a sense of respect. This can become very serious when students begin to work in isolation which can lead to waste of time, producing irrelevant work etc. Inadequate English language skills can add to these problems. The degree of difficulty will, of course, vary from student to student but, when assessing performance and behaviour, it is important that academic staff remember that the student being assessed may have a very different set of assumptions but not be aware of this. 

Tutors should also be aware of other cross-cultural communication issues, for example:

  • Personal space: cultures have different conventions about the space between individuals in social situations
  • Eye contact: avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect in some cultures
  • Time perspective: Tutors may need to be explicit about the expectation that students must arrive on time for lectures, etc.

It is not easy to bridge the cultural gap in the academic environment. It is difficult for international students to adjust to new methods of learning but it is also difficult for staff to strike a balance between showing an understanding of cultural differences and treating students fairly. Tutors can help by providing support and encouragement, and where necessary referring to the International Student Adviser. It is important that Tutors are very clear in their expectations of international students. When discussing academic progress, it is important to be specific. 'This isn't too bad' can mean many things, hence the possibility of conveying the wrong message.

Common issues for international students

Many of the comments regarding mature students under section 6.2 may also apply to international students. Other issues on which Tutors may need to offer support include:

Family and community responsibilities
Many older international students have considerable responsibilities in their own countries. They may ask for tutorial support at times of family sickness or bereavement. This is exacerbated in times of political conflict or environmental disaster in their own countries.

Contact with fellow nationals
Tutors will find this varies greatly from well-supported country associations at the University (maybe with a well organised social network) to isolated students knowing few, if any, others from their country. It is particularly hard if they have no opportunity to speak in their native language.  The local British Council office may be able to put them in touch with fellow nationals in this area. Should there be grave illness or a death in an international student's family, the senior person from that country at the University sometimes takes on great responsibilities as the representative of that country and the student's family far away. This can take its temporary toll on their own work.

International students from developing countries are often shocked to the core by UK prices when they first arrive. Advice on cheaper places to shop etc is appreciated by some students. Some international students try to stretch their loan/grant either to cover family members also living in the UK or to send money home to less fortunate family members. They may also feel the obligation to buy many presents on their return home. Their problems may be made worse by their loans/grants not arriving on time or unexpectedly stopping due to circumstances in their home country. Tutors may find themselves spending considerable time trying to sort out such problems. To boost their funds students may seek the Tutor's advice on part-time or vacation work.

Living in Halls of Residence
This can prove a convenient, if strange, way of life for mature international students, some of whom will have run homes of their own. Being in close proximity to large numbers of sometimes unrestrained young British students, who are away from home for the first time can be a culture shock in itself!  Some quiet international students may find it hard to voice concerns, seeing such behaviour as the normal way of life here, and not wanting to attract (possibly further) racial harassment. Liaison with the Hall Manager, Senior Resident Tutor/Resident Tutor can be very useful.

The acquisition of the necessary visas for continued UK residence is an extra complication for international students. This takes time for visits to London and can often cause anxiety. Tutors may be asked for support. Please note that there is a legal restriction on giving any form of immigration and visa advice. For any problems related to these, please contact the Student Advisers at Membership Services in the Students' Union.

Racial discrimination
Both home and international students may at some time experience racial discrimination.  In the case of international students, overt and covert racism may well exacerbate feelings of culture shock and homesickness which may not only adversely affect their academic performance and perception of the University, but also their general wellbeing. Dealing with racial discrimination is not an easy task partly because complaints made by students may not appear to have much 'substance'. It is easier to handle overt forms of discrimination when verbal or physical abuse is present, but the more subtle aspects, e.g., insinuations about intelligence, moral standards, attitudes, use of humour, etc, are difficult to 'assess'. It is therefore most important to take students' complaints seriously. International students may experience racial discrimination from both UK and other international students. Whether this is intentional or not it can cause tension and stress both in the teaching environment and socially. Tutors should not feel they have to cope on their own. The International Students Adviser, the Equal Opportunities Officer and others are available for consultation on the most appropriate steps forward in any particular case (see also section 5.10: Harassment).

Other sources of support
Support is also given by other organisations in Reading or beyond. It is good for Tutors to recognise this and help students take full advantage of these other systems which can help with an introduction to the UK way of life, language and friendship. Examples of such organisations are: International Focus and HOST UK, which arranges weekend and holiday visits to British host families. The International Student Adviser can give further advice. Local religious bodies of many sects and denominations welcome international students and may even have regular meetings for students from certain parts of the world. The Chaplaincy can usually advise and has good local contacts with many different faith groups. Informal and valued support is often given by international students pursuing Higher Degrees. They may have been in the UK for longer, some have their families with them to provide a home base and they usually have a well established network of colleagues and friends from their country in Reading, London or beyond. The value of their friendship and advice to some new students should not be underestimated.

Returning home

International students need help in preparing for and dealing with problems which might arise when the time comes to leave their temporary adopted culture to return home. Reorientation does not only take place in the student's own country.  Students need to think very early on about the debriefing they will need to undergo on their return.

The mere fact that students have adapted successfully to living in the host culture implies that changes have occurred in them. They may have adopted new ways of thinking and doing things and perhaps accepted other values. As a result, students face cultural, social and psychological challenges on their return home. Students may discover that things have changed at home or that their perception of what home was like was not accurate. People at home may expect technical but not attitudinal change in the student, who may be expected to play the same role(s) as prior to departure overseas. Students who have left small children at home to study abroad will face working through the effects of separation; those who have brought their children with them to the UK might find that the children experience difficulties adjusting to the school system and language on their return home. Some students may wonder at the appropriateness of what they have learned: "How do I apply what I have learnt within my home environment?"

Tutors may be able to help students:

  • To identify some of the problems they might encounter when they return home; to become aware of (often unrealistic) expectations of families/friends/colleagues
  • To affirm their overseas experience; to acknowledge the range of skills they have acquired in adapting to life in the UK, and possible ways of integrating and applying this at home
  • To look at coping strategies based on the extensive coping students have already undertaken in coming to the UK. Students who have developed skills in adapting to their host culture (such as 'cultural empathy') can use the same skills on their return home, thus easing the problems of reorientation.

Useful sources of additional information and advice

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