Ensuring the health and emotional wellbeing of international students

Mary Memarzia, Director of Student Services at Bellerbys Cambridge, reflects on how institutions can help to care for their international students’ mental health.

A recent report by YouGov states that one in four students in Britain suffer from mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. A major source of stress is their studies, with 71% of those surveyed saying that their university workload is their most pressing concern. 39% are worried about finding a job after university and 35% are concerned about their families.

These issues can become particularly acute for international students, who often battle to adjust to their new surroundings, far from home and the safety-net of friends and family. For many, adapting to a different culture, accessing a new curriculum, and communicating in a foreign language can present a far more daunting experience than they might have initially imagined. Their academic goals, whilst motivating, may not be enough to see students through these challenges and fear of failure, a common cause of anxiety, can be heightened by the pressures of expectation from home.

The quality of their study experience will not depend on the educational opportunities alone; the pastoral care and support offered to international students by their schools and colleges is also hugely important in ensuring that their time in the UK is positive, healthy, and rewarding.

At Bellerbys, we have helped students from over 45 countries adjust positively to studying abroad. Here are three effective techniques that can help universities and colleges care for their international students’ mental and emotional wellbeing – and support their academic success.

  1. Improve communication

International students can easily feel isolated and lonely. We know that when students are struggling to adapt to their new environment, they are more likely to retreat and, when faced with demanding new courses studied in a foreign language, they can end up feeling marginalised. Many students lack the complex vocabulary and linguistic nuances to navigate tricky situations. Not being understood, struggling to share in conversations, and not knowing when – or even how – to ask questions are all too common challenges that can be tiring and frustrating, affecting academic work and self-esteem.

The emotional stress of trying to fit in can manifest itself physically, with students suffering from sleep disturbance, poor concentration, headaches, and loss of appetite. Good communication is key to the overall wellbeing of these students, but is made doubly hard to achieve if students in need of support come from a culture that doesn’t encourage discussion about mental health.

Pastoral care services need to appreciate these cultural differences and understand the problems students face – addressing issues before they get out of hand. Effort needs to be made to get to know students beyond the classroom and regular check-ins should be scheduled: this will help uncover any underlying problems or concerns before it’s too late. Staff need to look out for students who are overworking, perhaps for fear of appearing weak or not meeting expectations, and step in to offer support. Events focused on mental health, such as stress management sessions, can help to open up the conversation about wellbeing.

  1. Care for the ‘whole student’

Providing care and support to international students requires an empathetic and holistic approach to wellbeing that takes into account their academic needs, as well as their physical, psychological, and emotional needs. If a student is suffering from any emotional difficulties, their academic performance will suffer too.

The YouGov report states that 47% of students who report mental health issues say that simple day-to-day tasks are difficult to complete, and 4% say they are unable to complete them at all. Emotional stress can have a big impact on academic success and adequate pastoral care is therefore a vital part of any education.

It’s also important that staff at all levels are able to support students who are battling with mental health problems. This may require specialist training to raise awareness of the issues at hand – and how to deal with them. Staff need to be attentive to the warning signs: erratic attendance, lack of participation in class, or distancing from social situations, and know how to signpost students to the support available, through referrals to GP services or trained counsellors.

Making sure that international students feel welcomed, accepted and supported is an essential ingredient of effective pastoral care, and this can be achieved in a variety of ways. It depends on everybody working together: from receptionists to tutors, caterers to residential staff, everyone has a part to play. Collaborative multi-disciplinary teams can ensure that systems are in place to support students and deliver positive teaching and learning experiences.

  1. Encourage a positive student experience

Events that allow students to introduce themselves and celebrate their culture can have a positive impact on their overall wellbeing and mental health. The rich cultural diversity of our student community has resulted in dynamic get-togethers. An international evening showcasing a myriad of local dress, language and food helped to forge strong connections between people from different backgrounds.

Enrichment activities, sports teams and student committees help create a more cohesive student community, as well as balance out some of the pressures of studying that can cause emotional instability. Whether in the stillness of a yoga class or the buzz of a sight-seeing day-trip, situations which give students the chance to develop meaningful relationships with others and the space to be themselves, are invaluable. When organised by the students themselves, social events can help instil a feeling of belonging – as well as great confidence in their abilities, both academic and social.

While our ultimate goal is to promote academic success in each of our international students, it requires much more than that to help them grow into independent, resilient young people, able to operate confidently in the world, wherever they may live and work. With the right support and care, mental health issues can be addressed, so that when students leave to embark on the next stage of their studies, they will move on feeling enriched and empowered, ready for the next round of challenges.

International schools needn’t panic over the oil & gas slump

“There’s no need to panic; there is a plethora of up-and-coming industries within these territories that is drawing in new expat professionals and filling the gaps”

Carolyn Savage, Head of International Education at Winter’s International School Finder, reassures international schools in the wake of the global oil & gas slump that is being felt in the education sector.

The recent slowdown of the oil & gas industry had an inevitable ripple effect on pupil enrolment at international schools. The International School Consultancy (ISC) predicted a drop of around 1-2% in enrolments in The Middle East this term, as well as lower enrolment rates in Asia-Pacific.

Some schools have seen little or no slowdown in the number of parents registering an interest, while others have experienced a larger reduction in enrolment, because they cater more specifically for families involved in the oil and gas industry.
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After the Language in London closure, what now?

“This type of sudden closure is awful for the whole industry, and at the end of the day it is the students and agents that we need to consider”

The sudden closure of Language in London, one of the three English language schools until recently that made up Language in Group, shocked the UK’s ELT sector last month. Here Margie Barker, director of Language in Totnes and Language in Group, reflects on the closure and the state of the industry.

Recently, yet another London school failed. While all such events are equally sad and distressing, this one hit home even more as it was a school that had belonged to a long term associate of mine. Language in London closed it doors without warning to any of us and staff, students and agents alike were all at once distressed and displaced.

Up until quite recently, my own school in Totnes, along with the Dublin school of Kevin Kheffache and Language In London, had been cooperating and pooling our sales and marketing efforts. This was primarily driven by the hope that that by combining our efforts our three smaller schools may be able to compete better with the big players in what is a very competitive and difficult market. We had recently decided to discontinue with this and return to working completely independently because the costs outweighed the benefits and our experimental cooperative simply didn’t work!
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Brexit means tough times ahead for UK HE

Professor Aldwyn Cooper, Vice Chancellor at Regent’s University London, shares some sobering predictions about UK HE’s post-Brexit future.

There is much discussion about the potential impact of ‘Brexit’ on UK universities. The answer, of course, is that nobody really knows what will happen next, and the total impact will be determined by the nature of any agreement that is finally reached.

In terms of research funding, where at present UK universities are the largest recipients of EU research and structural funding, loss of access could be devastating to many higher education institutions.
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Reflecting on 20 years of AAERI

Rahul Gandhi, president of the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India, reflects on the association’s history as is celebrates its 20th anniversary.

While I was a student in Australia 20 years ago, AAERI was born at the Australian High commission, New Delhi, as the brainchild of Prof Tom Calma and the founder AAERI members. For any child, the initial 5 years are important as these define his character. Similarly for AAERI, the initial 5 years were important. It was because of hand holding by the Australian High commission, New Delhi, that AAERI was able to crawl, walk and eventually stand on its own feet. Today, the child has grown into an adult and AAERI is a proud Indian association which operates within the framework of the ESOS act of Australia & AAERI’s code of ethics. For AAERI, Australia is its soul and India is its heart.
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Don’t be too quick to write off for-profit education providers

“If the government has to cut funding for social programs to provide additional support for a publicly funded institution, is tuition inexpensive and good value for money? Or has the cost been shifted?”

In the education sphere, people can be quick to criticise for-profit education – but having worked in both the public and private sectors, Michael Evans wonders if we’re asking the right questions.

A recent article posted in The PIE News reported on the results of a study carried out by the UK based Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE), which looked at for-profit degree granting institutions in six countries. I suspect most educators working in HE education in the last ten years would able to predict many of the study’s results, as well as the tenor of the post.

That there are issues in for-profit education is by now conventional wisdom. As well, certainly no one would suggest anything but the most robust policies to protect student tuition and uphold natural justice in dealings between the student and institution. However, when opinions are so ubiquitously held around other more complex issues, does it not beg the question as to whether we are fully understand the issues?  I am not an apologist for private education; however, having worked in both public and for-profit education, I think the conventional thinking around these issues demonstrates the need for a different approach.
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Social media in a crisis

“Contacting people via social media in a crisis situation is the quickest way to determine safety and whereabouts, especially when there are thousands of miles between you”

If crisis strikes when students are overseas, how can institutions check they’re ok? Email is just too slow, writes Mandy Reinig, director of study away at Virginia Wesleyan College and founder of the social media consultancy Mandy’s Mashups. She explains how social media can help to reach students who might otherwise fall off the radar.

Most people in the field of international education now understand the importance of social media in communicating with students. However, many have yet to harness its power in crisis situations. The world today has become an increasingly volatile place where the unexpected can occur at any moment. As such it is important to be able to have a means of contacting your students to determine their whereabouts and their safety status. Unfortunately, email, and even phone calls, cannot be relied on as the sole or even a reliable means of communication due to the fact that students often do not check their email regularly and in major events phone lines can be down for hours.
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Building bridges (or life after Brexit)

“All of a sudden my plans seemed not so sure anymore, and it was easy to see how current and prospective international students might feel the same”

Melisa Costinea, originally from Transylvania, Romania, is studying PGDip Social Research Methods at University College London, and has previously studied MA Film and Visual Culture – Sociology at University of Aberdeen. She is currently interning for UKCISA, and here she writes about her reaction to the Brexit vote, and how UKCISA is working to support international students.

Everyone will remember what they did on the 23rd of June of 2016 as one would remember, for example, where they were when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I think the first thing that one should do in the aftermath of Britain’s EU Referendum result is acknowledge the immense impact that this has had on so many people, including an international student such as myself. Along the way, I will also give you a glimpse into how UKCISA is responding to the situation.
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Duty of care in the global institution

“We took calls from clients who had to sleep on the streets because their hotel was deemed too unsafe to enter”

Sean de Lacey, head of sales at Diversity Travel, a travel management firm which specialises in travel in the academic sector, discusses the importance of duty of care for growing institutions.

At an event in collaboration with the University of the West of Scotland, Diversity Travel invited procurement and finance personnel from UK academic institutions across the country to discuss key issues in academic travel. One of the main takeaways from the event was that many institutions have recognised the importance of overseas expansion and collaboration, and that it is essential that they travel to international markets to drive growth and development opportunities forward.

International travel gives these institutions access to a global network and allows academics to share first-hand experiences and insights with their students and fellow academics. Through a travel network that is becoming more affordable and easier to navigate, faculty can now reap the benefits of networking overseas to attract an international student base, and produce courses and research projects with a global perspective.
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