A slice of happiness: making international students feel at home

“Basic physiological needs such as shelter, food, warmth are fundamental and, if they are not met, then the chances of students reaching those higher levels of self-actualisation are limited”

In light of Mental Health Awareness Week,  director of Student Services at Bellerbys College Cambridge Mary Memarzia writes about the importance of making international students feel valued and at home when they make the difficult transition to a new country, culture and way of life.

Bread – a slice of happiness’ proclaims the message on the bread bin in the student’s kitchen. And yet, something as simple as a slice of bread can trigger unhappiness – particularly if it is the cheap, white, untoasted variety, which compared to the flavoursome bread from home is (as one of my students put it) ‘like eating chalk’.

It‘s a small thing but illustrates the importance of home cooking, family mealtimes, the very taste of home, when considering factors that influence a student’s happiness.

“Home is, after all, more than a just a place to live. New accommodation may be represented as a ‘home away from home’, but it’s still ‘away from home’”

Personal and communal space

Those who run the accommodation, be they residential staff or host families, have an important role to play in terms of creating a sense of family and community, whether on a large or small scale. 

The National Minimum Standards for Boarding requires boarding schools to allow students to personalise their rooms. In the same way, study bedrooms in a residence or a homestay should give international students opportunity for personalisation. They need to own the space before they can call it their home.

And when constructing communal spaces, institutions need to create cheerful environments, with upbeat murals and notice boards displaying relevant information – particularly on topics like well-being and where to go for support.

Basic needs

Not only can personalising the environment help to fill the gap left by the absence of the student’s own immediate family, but it can also help to create a sense of belonging, which can be so instrumental in nurturing positive wellbeing. Students who feel they are part of a supportive and friendly community will not only find it easier to integrate into the wider society, they’re also less likely to consider leaving this new environment – however strong the pull back to the home country may be.

As Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs reminds us, basic physiological needs such as shelter, food, warmth are fundamental and, if they are not met, then the chances of students reaching those higher levels of self-actualisation are limited.

“Before we think about self-esteem, social belonging and academic success, we need to acknowledge and address these fundamental needs – and recognise the significance of the difficulties students face in adapting to the new cultural landscape”

Transitions generate unease and a sense of dislocation. International students experience this in an acute form, as all familiar structures of home, family, friends, education system, tradition and culture are peeled away and they stand alone to face the unfamiliar cultural and academic landscape.

Academic institutions should make international students feel like a vital part of a vibrant intellectual community: one that values them and wants them to succeed during their studies. That means giving them academic resources, to be sure – but it also means making greater efforts to provide comfort and emotional nourishment wherever possible. Something which Universities UK is opening the debate on in their recent Minding our Future Report. Environmental considerations are a top priority. If institutions can make students feel at home, both the individual and the community will be richer for it.

And, even the toast will taste better!