Currently over 4.3 million students study at post-secondary institutions outside their home country. Whether you are a community college in Canada, a boarding school in Switzerland, a poly-tech institute in India, a language school in Brazil, or a university in Malaysia, you will most likely have international students on your campus.
International students go abroad to study, but they also go abroad for the experience. And they bring with them a host of expectations, needs and concerns. A typical international student won’t just arrive on campus, settle in and hit the books without some hurdles to jump along the way.
This article touches upon some of the more common concerns affecting international students, no matter where they are studying, and offers some tips and ideas on how your education institution can respond and support them. Robust student services can mean an enhanced student experience, which in turn can result in greater interest in your school or university.
At the start of a new academic year, both domestic and international students will be experiencing similar feelings, asking the same questions, and sharing concerns about finances, friends, academics and homesickness. The international student might have additional issues with food, accommodations, culture shock and language.
Last September, The Guardian wrote an article called “Six things that can go wrong at uni – and how to fix them.” Although written with the domestic student in mind, this list could equally apply to concerns affecting international students:
- You really don’t like your course;
- You don’t get on with your flatmates;
- Unexpected circumstances occur around deadlines;
- You are having trouble settling in and making friends;
- You leave it too late to sort out housing for the next year;
- You realise university isn’t for you.
Some of these seem insurmountable, but with the right resources in place, international students can successfully navigate the first few months of studying in another country and go on to have a bright and happy education experience.
Every institution that has international students enrolled – no matter what type or where in the world – should have some kind of provision for student services. Whether that means an office with a full team of professionals or just one person who has responsibility for it (among other things), students’ needs and the services required to help them must be addressed.
Student services involves considering every step of a student’s journey, from enquiry stage through to graduation and beyond. A student will be influenced by every contact with the institution. When looking at what services to provide or improve upon, think about each interaction your institution has with a student, no matter how seemingly insignificant.
Student services can (and should) include many things such as:
- new student orientation;
- finance support;
- social activities/student’s union;
- medical/health services;
- food services;
- language support;
- academic support;
- alumni association.
Last year, ICEF Monitor reported on how accommodation can aid (or hinder) international student recruitment. By the same token, good accommodation provision is a student service that can aid retention and keep students on track.
Colleges and universities around the world are setting up student residences that cater to students with specific interests or lifestyles, such as alcohol-free residences, single sex halls or faith-based housing. Some US institutions are even moving professors and academics into student housing to “offer advice and a listening ear” and have found it makes a difference in students’ attitudes and outlook.
Start at the beginning
New student orientation is another area of student services which can perhaps make or break a new international student’s first impressions of what it’s like to study at your school, college or university. See our previous article “Student retention begins in, and sometimes before, the first week of class” on how a comprehensive new student orientation, among other services, can help set students up for a successful year.
An example of a powerful and effective orientation programme can also be found in the Inside Higher Ed article “The Anti-Orientation.” This type of orientation focuses on building a student’s awareness of where they are, their sense of place and of community.
The benefits of this kind of orientation go beyond preparing students for the year ahead. A study found that “not only were students who built strong relationships at early orientation programmes more likely to be engaged in college, they were more likely to maintain an affiliation with – and donate to – their college as alumni.”
Some universities go to great lengths to welcome international students on campus and make sure they have access to all the student services and support they need. Take, for example, Michigan State University which found itself with an influx of Chinese students after a successful recruitment campaign. In order to provide these students with the support required, MSU sent cafeteria staff to China to learn how to cook popular Chinese dishes (food is a common subject of complaint with international students everywhere).
That kind of attention to detail won’t be possible for every education institution, but giving some thought to the kinds of student support services international students will need and doing what you can with the resources you have will go a long way.
Language schools, boarding schools and smaller institutions could organise an ‘international food night’ where students cook something from their home country. Or perhaps run a series of evenings each focused on a different nation and its cuisine, accompanied by regional music. Nothing brings people together like food and song, which can help students feel settled in their new surroundings.
Spread the word and listen
How will you know what services your students need and want? Ask them!
This Guardian article (“Student voice on campus: it’s about more than beer and box-ticking”) highlights two universities that are harnessing the power of student surveys and feedback to make important and welcome student-focused changes on campus.
The University of Dundee in particular listens to what students have to say and works hard to incorporate the student voice throughout the campus. Graham Nicholson, Deputy Director of Student Services at Dundee, said, “When students are used to being engaged in the dialogue, then they start being proactive as well as reactive.”
Asking international students what they want is a great start to building or improving your student services provision. Noel-Levitz outlines six steps to conducting student satisfaction assessments:
- Set expectations from your top leadership that student feedback is valued: it is essential for success to have buy-in from senior leadership at the institution;
- Establish an assessment cycle that takes into account all of the surveying you want to conduct;
- Gather data from a representative sample of your students;
- Clarify what the data are really saying about the campus experience;
- Use the data for decision making across your campus;
- Inform the campus of the actions that you are taking.
If your institution is using recruitment agencies to help recruit students, sometimes those students will feel more comfortable going back to their agent with complaints if they aren’t happy where they are studying. How can you reach out to them if you don’t know what’s wrong?
It goes without saying it is important for agents and the institutions they represent to have open and constant communication. A recruitment agent should feel like they can go to the institution with any concerns about a particular student. It might be worthwhile for both the institution and the agent to decide together how to handle such situations and have an agreed upon process in place for agents to follow if a student comes to them with a complaint.
Some best practice guidelines might include:
- having a named contact at the institution for the agent to report student issues to;
- including questions on the application form that pertain to student preferences or to flag any pre-existing concerns;
- making sure agents are always informed in a timely manner of any changes to institution policy or support services, perhaps via a weekly email newsletter or regular phone calls.
It’s vital that recruitment agents are kept current and up-to-date on all institution news, as they are often the first point of contact a prospective student has with a school, college or university.
Meet them where they’re at
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest – education institutions around the world are engaging students with these platforms like never before, and these are ideal for promoting your student services. If you make a change on campus in response to a satisfaction survey, or add some student support service, tell students about it using the technology they are on.
In a recent article, ICEF Monitor reported, “According to Ericsson, mobile subscriptions will reach 9.3 billion by 2019, and of these, 5.6 billion will be for smartphones” (read “Marketers will focus on mobile more than ever before in 2014”). This means prospective international students everywhere will be online and mobile, and they will be checking out your institution.
The website .eduGuru lists “5 reasons you should utilise Twitter for student services,” and has this piece of advice: “Your school can take advantage of that same social atmosphere [social media] to keep your students informed and engaged in ways that they might have felt too intimidated to figure out on their own.”
International students and domestic students alike experience highs and lows no matter where or what they are studying, whether they be a PhD at a top university, a computer buff studying for a vocational certificate or an 18-year old fresh out of high school spending three months in Spain learning Spanish. All of them will require, and should be offered, student services and support. The success of your institution (and certainly the reputation) could possibly depend on it. Use the tips offered here and take a look at how you might improve your international student services provision.
Last but not least, we’ll sign off today with this handy infographic, while not strictly limited to use by students, gives a good idea of how many people around the world are engaged in social media. Note that these top social media using countries are also some of the top sending countries in terms of international student mobility.
International social media landscape 2013. Source: Ci2i Services