Creating a Sense of Community for Your International Students
“Simply having a diverse student body does not mean the education or even the campus is global in nature. What comes as an essential part of a global education is in the inclusion of international students in communities and classes.”
That was the finding of a British Council report into the integration of international students into universities. Recruiting international students is one thing, but creating a sense of belonging that transcends cultural differences is the key to a truly global university.
But the challenge is far from simple to solve. Anyone who has spent time on a university campus will no doubt reach the same finding as student Victoria Ngow: “students’ friendship groups are often defined by nationality.”
There were around 1.6 million international students studying across the European Union in 2016 – 43% from other EU states, 30% from Asia, and 12% from Africa.
With so many international students studying across Europe, how can universities ensure those students are arriving at university feeling confident and prepared to immerse themselves into university life?
In the 2019 QS International Students Survey, it was clear that how you are communicating with international students is not just influencing their choice of university, but their confidence and sense of belonging.
And from my own experience, I know how important peer-to-peer connections are. When I was deciding on my future university, I was bombarded with information but it felt like there was always something missing. I was moving countries and starting an exciting new chapter, and I wanted reassurance and the honest opinion of someone who had taken the same big step before.
I really wanted to find out whether it was worth the investment for someone like me – had the move paid off for someone from my background? Would I be welcome there? Would I be able to mix with the local community and how did other people like me find the city?
So how can you convince international students that your university is where they belong?
The key is to communicate to your prospects that your university is a welcoming, friendly environment. One way to do this is by showcasing your international students: who they are and what they’re doing. Encourage students from around the world to have a presence on your website and in your comms. Our partners do a great job of this by creating Unibuddy profiles or posting blogs, and it’s the perfect outlet for your international students’ voice. It also has the benefit of reassuring others who are considering studying at your institution.
That peer-to-peer connection is so important for all students, but particularly students who are travelling across the world to join your university. Potentially unable to access Open Days due to the cost, they want to know what it’s like there. Current students can provide that authentic voice to inform and reassure.
The data speaks for itself: 61% of international students want to connect with existing international students to ask their questions.
Unibuddy can provide this connection, straight from the University website (where a huge 79% of international students are going to find information!).
You can also give your international prospective students the opportunity to connect with students from other countries, or domestic students.
A great way to facilitate this connection is through a Unibuddy Live chat. Unibuddy Live is a fantastically flexible way to attract, reassure and retain your prospective students – that you can utilise at any point in the recruitment cycle.
The real-time chat enables scheduled group-chats or 1-2-1 chats between prospects, ambassadors and the university enquiry team. You can create live feeds to organise the Unibuddy Live Chat and control which ambassadors have access.
Invite ambassadors and prospective students from around the world to connect and create positive social encounters. Creating these connections is sure to have a positive impact on your conversion, too. When Middlesex University ran a Unibuddy Live chat, they found it to be twice as effective as any other digital recruitment method – and 86.9% of prospective students rated the chat platform “good” or “very good”.
The facts are clear: “Internationalisation can improve HEI’s reputation and the quality of education” – but creating internationalisation and a truly global university is about more than getting international students through the door. You need to nurture a sense of belonging to facilitate integration and engagement.
Here is how to create a sense of community for international students.
1. Orientation and Welcome Programs Tailored to International Students
Giving that sense of community for your international students means taking particular care to meet their needs in terms of getting familiar with your institution and their new country.
Introduce international students to the local culture, by having activities and workshops that can highlight what customs and traditions are important, and giving tips on language and dialect. Having current international students explain important differences in culture can help prepare prospective or new students for the culture they’re going to be immersed in, while also giving them a link that bridges the gap between culture of origin and their new culture.
Mentorship programs further this experience by pairing international students with domestic students or staff that can help guide them through the initial transition; assisting with moving, navigating services, making sure they have the documents they need, and anything else that is crucial to getting started in a new place.
Networking events are great for everyone, but in particular for your international students who may be uncertain about where to go or what to do, hosting a networking event creates that opportunity for students to connect with each other, local students and faculty.
2. Cultural Support and Inclusivity Initiatives
It’s hard to claim that there’s an inclusive community for your international students if you don’t give them dedicated space. Cultural centres and clubs let international students connect to celebrate their culture, and also gives them a chance to learn about the other international students around them and their host culture.
Offering language support for those whose first or native language isn’t the same as their host country can go a long way in helping international students feel comfortable and prepared in their daily and academic lives. Language courses and conversation partners boost an international student’s proficiency, and gives them confidence in their interactions.
For everyone else, training in inclusive policies and practices can support an environment that is welcoming to international students. Ensuring that faculty and staff are culturally-aware and competent means that international students aren’t feeling like an afterthought in their new country.
3. Academic and Career Guidance for International Students
Building a community that international students can rely on means supporting them in their pursuits as well.
Academic counselling isn’t a new idea, but tailoring it for international students and considering their specific challenges and how to tackle them can help give them a leg up in a foreign culture and country. Giving clear ideas of goals and how to get there is a supportive way to manage academic efforts.
Career workshops and internship opportunities specifically for international students can help them to understand the local job market, earn valuable local experience, and kickstart the employment skills that they’ll need to thrive in your country and beyond. Address issues that they are most concerned with, and secure opportunities that may be beyond them without local work experience.
4. Ongoing Community Engagement and Connection Opportunities
Community shouldn’t stop once academic and employment needs are fulfilled, a good community is fluid and should support social needs beyond graduation.
Have regular social events and gatherings to bring international students together and offer a sense of belonging as social ties are made, strengthened and built upon. These are common spaces where true life-long friendships can be made.
Offer opportunities for community involvement so international students can feel like they’re a part of the local culture that they live in. This can look like volunteering with a local organization, doing work they care about or is relevant to their education, or community projects that give them connection to the people and land they’re a part of.
Online platforms and social media groups offer a way to stay connected and engaged with their community, even when it’s not convenient to be there in person. Solutions like Unibuddy can offer a space to communicate with other international students, share experiences of international life and ask questions of their community when needing some support.
If you’d like to know more about Unibuddy’s peer-to-peer platform get in touch on email@example.com or book a demo.
About the author
Ilaria Giacon, University Partnerships Executive
A former international student (twice and across two continents), Ilaria now helps to drive Unibuddy’s future growth by building relationships with prospective universities and turning them into happy and successful partners.
Ilaria is a passionate volleyball player and never misses an opportunity to go backpacking somewhere fun.
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