The challenges of fitting in

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2012, 12:00am


The issues

In a 2004 survey by the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), 5,000 international students were asked about their experiences, including who they made friends with.

'Fifty-nine per cent said most of their friends were co-nationals or other international students; only 39 per cent had some British friends and this figure dropped to 15 per cent for the Chinese students in the UK,' says Dominic Scott, chief executive of UKCISA. Scott says there are 2.5 million students in British universities, of which 400,000 are international students. Of the international group, 300,000 are from countries outside the European Union.

The survey indicated that those who participated in any activities outside the classroom were more likely to have British friends; and those who had British friends were more likely to be satisfied with their international experience.

Language and cultural differences can create anxiety when the two groups interact, especially for domestic students.

'It is a global phenomenon that domestic students are reluctant to engage with their international peers,' says Neil Harrison, senior research fellow at the University of the West of England. Harrison has 10 years of experience researching integration issues of international students. 'When a 19-year-old [freshman] walks into the classroom and sees that his nationality group isn't the majority, he experiences as much of a cultural shock as his international classmates,' he adds.

'Most domestic students find it stressful to interact with international students. Some worry about being judged for their [weaker] academic performance and [different] social behaviour; others worry that these students will take away their resources.'

How many are too many?

It's common to see students of the same nationality sticking together. They speak the same language, understand the same jokes and share the same topics of interest. However, this may not help them blend into local culture or feel the need to make other friends. There may be a tipping point of a good proportion between international and domestic students.

'Studies have shown that size does matter,' says Leong Chan-hoong, research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore, and former vice-chairman for the government policy unit on integrating foreigners.

'In some studies done in New Zealand, it was found that the tipping point for the best proportion of international students is 10 to 12 per cent. When the number gets larger, the attitude of domestic students towards them will turn from positive to negative. Similar results have been shown in some studies on immigrants.'

Leong says this percentage may not apply to all countries, as other factors such as socio-economic status could also be in play.

'In schools with students from more well-off families, there is more competition among students and their acceptance of international students will be lower.'

Whose responsibility is it?

Many like Scott think governments have a responsibility to create an environment which promotes integration by looking at their systems and facilities, from housing and transport to libraries and sports. But institutions also share the responsibility.

'Institutions are at the heart of it. They're not just academic conveyor belts; they have a duty to build global citizens,' says Scott. He also believes getting students to think about the changes they are about to experience will help their adjustment. Hence a website was set up for international students prior to their arrival.

Harrison supports strategies which consider the needs of domestic students, too.

'It's dangerous to leave domestic students to 'sink or swim' in international universities; any strategy for integration must respect their needs, and the first year of university is crucial in setting the tone for integration,' he says.

Individuals have a responsibility, too. 'Empathy and personal awareness help to promote integration,' says Harrison.

The news

In early February, the British Council in Singapore held a two-day symposium, in partnership with Singapore's National Integration Council, on integrating international students. During the symposium, students and academics from Britain, Singapore and other countries shared their insights on issues regarding integration. Some observed that not all international students have a positive experience during their stay in foreign lands, and governments and institutions have a responsibility to make the overseas experience a fruitful one which can benefit both domestic and international students.

iVillage at HKUST

In Hong Kong, the government has capped the yearly undergraduate enrolment of international students to 20 per cent for each university, or a total of 15,000 in all eight local universities. But it is up to each institution to promote integration and handle any issues.

Every year, the universities hold different kinds of events to promote cultural diversity. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has taken a further step in building a community for its international students.

'Three years ago, our new residential hall was just established and we wanted to try a new model for integrating the two groups of students,' says Professor Tam Kar-yan, associate provost and dean of students at HKUST. The new iVillage houses equal numbers of domestic and international students, and they are assessed yearly before they can stay on.

'We look for students who embrace cultural diversity. Students have told us that they like it. By living together, they think it has a greater impact on their interaction and relationships,' Tam says.

International student Annette Louise Osmena from the Philippines enjoys the informal setting.

'It's different from [being in a classroom]. In here, you really get to see each other. You cook and share dishes together, you learn about each other's culture every day. I feel like I'm living in their countries,' says the 18-year-old business student.

Annette does not mind making more effort to talk to her local classmates who are quiet and tend to keep to themselves, and she is ready to adjust her behaviour for them. 'Once my roommate asked me not to bring my friends into our room after 10 at night. I was glad she told me or I wouldn't know it had bothered her.'

'Our events are all student-led and everybody is free to join,' says 20-year-old Vanessa Ng Sze-ki, another resident of iVillage. 'I think local students need to open up to international students. We need to break our stereotypes and get to know them. They can become your best friends, too. If I just come to university and see my classmates in class, then say goodbye, nothing is going to happen. It's a global world. We can't just [avoid] talking to people from other countries.'

Voices from secondary international students

In my school, integration is not a problem but I think we need to improve on the social level. For example, some Hong Kong citizens still bear a grudge and may have discriminatory views against mainland immigrants. I believe each culture has its own characteristics and wisdom. New immigrants bring new culture, knowledge and ideas and will enhance the overall creativity and intelligence of our society.

Erica Kwan, 15, St Paul's Convent School

I believe that we should not confine ourselves to the knowledge of our own cultures. We must keep our traditional cultures but we also need to understand other people. When people integrate, a lot of new things are discovered, and we find there are not many differences between us. One big problem our world is facing is having conflicts at all levels. These conflicts could be solved if we knew more about each other and did not restrict ourselves to only our own cultures.

Ella Chan, 17, Li Po Chun United World College

Social integration of different groups can boost commerce and local school education and reduce political friction, but more importantly, it can erase stubborn stereotypes that local citizens hold. Integration is certainly the responsibility of students. In our school, a global mindset is one of the core values. I've learned the importance of stepping out of my local bubble and making the effort to learn about cultural differences.

Zareen Chiba, 18, Li Po Chun United World College