Student retention begins in, and sometimes before, the first week of class

For many educators, the memory of the last student intake and last orientation is never far away, especially with a new school year recently underway in many parts of the world. How would you rate your school’s effort at welcoming new international students and helping them settle in? What are you thinking of improving for your next intake?

These are not small questions. There is an increasingly clear relationship between an effective orientation – and related services that encourage incoming international students to reach out and connect with new friends – and the level of engagement students achieve with their school and their new community throughout their studies. This level of attachment has been shown in turn to be an important factor in student performance, retention, and even in the student’s interest in remaining on in the host country to pursue career or immigration opportunities after graduation.

We have looked at issues and strategies around student retention in previous posts, including features on data-driven enhancements to student support services as well as the impact of culture shock. But for many educators, it seems the path to dealing with these issues – including better retention rates – begins in the first week of class, or perhaps even before.

Preventing homesickness

A recent paper published in the Journal of American College Health – “Homesickness and Adjustment in University Students” – notes that many new post-secondary students will suffer intense homesickness.

“The transition to college or university can be an exciting new experience for many young adults. For some, intense homesickness can make this move difficult, even unsustainable.”

“Homesickness – defined as the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home – carries the unique hallmark of preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects. Sufferers typically report depression and anxiety, withdrawn behavior, and difficulty focusing on topics unrelated to home.”

“For domestic and international university students, intense homesickness is particularly problematic. It can exacerbate preexisting mood and anxiety disorders, precipitate new mental and physical health problems, and sometimes lead to withdrawal from school.”

The report’s authors, Dr Christopher Thurber, a psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy, and Dr Edward Walton, a professor in pediatric medicine at Oakland University, recommend a number of preventative strategies based on their research in the field:

  • “Provide orienting information… The more that incoming students know about what to expect and where to find supports and resources when they arrive, the less anxious they will feel.
  • Plan for how and when to maintain connections with home [via] letters, email, video chats, phone calls, and in-person visits.
  • Initiate social contacts prior to the first day of school… Social networking websites [such as a dedicated Facebook page or chat room] can be healthy tools for connections between new and returning students or among groups of new students.
  • For international students, cultivate host-country friends as well as homeland friends… Establishing a friendship group of predominantly homeland friends impedes acculturation and is usually associated with more intense feelings of missing home.
  • Educate new and returning students about the peer and professional supports that are available on and around campus. All students should know where to find resident advisors, dormitory affiliates, health centre staff, and mental health professionals.”

To this we would also add:

  • Arrange for your institution’s psychology department to give a workshop(s) to staff on how to discover tell-tale signs of depression or anxiety in advance, and what to do to ensure the student receives help. Include intercultural sensitivity training for staff (and consider extending this to students both domestic and international).
  • Pay special attention to international students who arrive late (due to visa delays, personal issues, etc.) and might have missed the formal orientation programme.

Expanded support services

The importance of strong orientation and support services targeted to new international students is looming larger in schools and campuses these days, partly because many international programmes have realised steady enrolment growth in recent years.

“Even at colleges where the raw numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, foreign students’ increased presence is felt,” says a 2011 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “International students, or those from particular countries, are no longer showing up in onesies and twosies… As a result, what might have previously been ascribed to the personality or learning style of an individual student is beginning to coalesce into noticeable patterns, although international educators are quick to say that it’s not always possible – or appropriate – to generalise across country or cultural groups.”

And along with that growing presence on campus, the profile of today’s international students is noticeably different than it was even a few years ago. Undergraduate enrolments are growing quickly – this is particularly the case in major destination countries such as the US, where undergraduate enrolments have grown twice as fast as graduate enrolments over the past few years – and students are coming from a greater range of countries than in the past.

As The Chronicle reports, American educators are responding with new or expanded support services.

“A growing number of colleges have instituted peer-mentor programmes. At American University, current international students act as small-group leaders during orientation, sharing their own experiences of acclimating to campus life. Colorado State University’s peer advisers, about half of whom are American, reach out to incoming international students, introducing themselves by email and offering to answer questions before the semester even begins.

Other institutions have variations on the peer-adviser theme. Rice University stations ‘international liaisons’ in each of its residence halls to serve as informal resources to foreign students, who can drop by their rooms with questions or concerns. George Mason pairs participants in its Access programme, which pairs provisionally-admitted students who work to improve their English while taking college courses with honours students who live on adjacent floors.”

Institutions, in the US and otherwise, are also looking at how to improve the effectiveness of their orientation programmes. For some, this means paring orientations down to the basics in order to help avoid information overload for newly arrived students. For others, orientation takes place in extended sessions before the beginning of the school year or even in for-credit courses taken in the first semester of study.

The University of Toronto, for example, offers Green Path, a dedicated 12-week summer preparation course for students from China. Participants get a chance to polish their English and to get a jump on social connections and academic preparation for the school year ahead. The programme’s focus on Chinese students, however, can be seen as both a strength and a challenge given the strong interest many international students have in connecting with students from other cultural backgrounds.

“The instinct to form cliques around nationality is something Green Path administrators are keen to guard against,” reports Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. “The ‘GPers’ all hail from China, often speak Mandarin to each other, and grow tight-knit after 12 weeks together… At the same time, instructors constantly urge them to break out of that bubble and go exploring.”

The University of British Columbia, meanwhile, offers a two-week summer orientation programme called Jump Start for new international and Aboriginal students. As the Globe and Mail report outlines:

“Starting with a pick-up at the airport, the programme’s two intensive weeks mix academic lectures with workshops on living independently and plenty of social events, like talent shows and dancing nights. Many universities offer events like these, but stretching them over two weeks and getting professors involved remains rare, not to mention costly, which may help explain why few schools have followed suit. The programming is free, but students are asked to pay up to CDN 1,240 for room and board.”

“Students insist it was worth it. ‘It helps a lot, for real,’ says Giulio Sucar Pregnolato, 18, who came to UBC from Sao Paulo, Brazil to study biomedical science. ‘It removes the sense that you’re alone in a huge pond of other people. You just feel inserted more.’”

These examples suggest a new idea about orientation is taking shape – one that starts early, even before the student’s arrival on campus, and lasts longer than was the case for orientations past.

They also suggest that formal orientation sessions are increasingly seen as an important part of a broader process, one that includes ongoing information and support services for new students to help ensure they have every opportunity to connect with fellow students, the larger community, and even the country in which they have chosen to study.



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