Insight: intercultural exchanges at colleges fall short of expectations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 9:55am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 9:55am

Thousands of Hong Kong students are preparing to study abroad, either for school, full-time higher education, or exchange. Many more are submitting applications to enter the city's increasingly international universities.

As these students make their choices, they will be bombarded with promotions extolling the benefits awaiting them. These will include the friends from across the globe they will make at college, and the opportunities they will have to develop the "intercultural competency skills" essential for future careers, and for facing the challenges of the world.

Rice and noodles should sit alongside the stodgy potatoes. It is amazing how often they don't.

The number of students studying outside their home countries almost doubled to 3.6 million in the decade to 2010, according to Unesco.

Hong Kong is becoming an increasingly popular destination. In 2012, the University of Hong Kong alone received 18,000 non-local applications from 96 different countries, according to its new Global Admissions Profile.

But there is increasing evidence from student surveys and academic research that the intercultural experience falls short of expectations.

The desired cultural mix often fails to happen. National groups stick together, whether they be inbound students in Hong Kong, or outbound students in Australia, the United States or Britain.

There is a further, and pronounced, sub-division of mainland and Hong Kong students, here and overseas.

International students, as strangers in a foreign land, tend to make friends with each other. But it is difficult to break into local friendship circles because of the differences in language, interests and behaviour.

It is natural to choose friends from among people we find easier to relate to, but the divisions become problematic when they lead to prejudices and misconceptions being confirmed, says Professor Jane Jackson, of Chinese University's English department, who has conducted research on the issue.

A pre-departure briefing run by the university's Office of Academic Links states that Hong Kong students tend to think their international peers party too much, stay out too late, are casual in their relationships, and monopolise classroom discussions.

International students, meanwhile, think Hongkongers study too much, don't know how to party, are too shy or serious about relationships, never sleep, and seldom contribute in class.

All need to be reminded to avoid stereotyping: for example, while alcohol may be an issue in universities in Britain, not all British students drink a lot.

Many universities are on the case with a range of initiatives. For example, HKU's Global Lounge has been founded as a hub for interaction, while pre-departure briefings like those held at Chinese University will warn of culture shock and urge students to be open-minded.

These initiatives may help, but the barriers remain.

Talk to students from Europe or Africa on any Hong Kong campus - even HKU - and they are still likely to say they find it hard to make genuine local friends.

Jackson argued at Chinese University's recent Teaching and Learning Innovation Expo that more needs to be done to promote intercultural sensitivity, not only among home and overseas students, but among the faculty teaching them.

Jackson runs an elective Intercultural Transitions course at her university for students who have recently returned from overseas exchange, as well as international students currently on campus.

This innovative course helps them reflect critically on the experience as an academic pursuit, so they can maximise the benefits for themselves and their future careers.

"Internationalisation at home" is the new concept which, according to Jackson, includes embedding a global dimension into the curricula, and building activities to integrate the different student communities. Intercultural communication workshops and courses may well be part of the solution.

For students and parents choosing schools or universities abroad, it is worth trying to find out what the institution does to promote genuine intercultural sensitivity and interaction, as well as to provide a welcoming home away from home.

That starts with the attitudes of the adults. One of my first "internationalisation at home" tests is to visit the canteens of institutions that enthusiastically recruit international students.

If the school or university in Britain, Australia or the US really embraces diversity, rice and noodles should sit alongside the stodgy potatoes. It is amazing how often they don't.

Katherine Forestier is director of the consultancy Education Link