Many students will experience difficulties with homesickness, making new friends, exam stress or financial worries at some point during their studies. However, these issues can be magnified for international students who may encounter additional challenges including a language barrier, integrating into an unfamiliar culture, or 'Culture Shock' which can lead to sadness, trouble sleeping, and reduced confidence. Universities must therefore consider the potential negative impact of this significant lifestyle change, and how best to support these students.
The ProtectED Code of Practice contains dedicated measures for international students (download here) such as: educating students on the location, culture and context of their new home; helping them to open a bank account and find accommodation with a reputable landlord; tailored information and support on wellbeing, safety and travel; and on-campus support during the holidays. The level of care provided for international students varies greatly across the HE sector; something which ProtectED is aiming to address. However, a fantastic example of some of the good work taking place is the Universities Chaplaincy in Leeds' initiative 'Culture Shock' - a comedy drama for international students to help them acclimatise to their new surroundings. We spoke to Chaplaincy Service Manager Nerys Notley to find out more about it.
The 'Culture Shock' performance takes place twice a year, in mid-September and at the end of January, to welcome new arrivals. As Nerys explains, all Chaplaincy members have had some experience of being new to a country, either during time spent working abroad or having moved to the UK themselves. As a result, they can sympathise with the feeling of being out of place, struggling with a new language, culture differences, unfamiliar food, and practicalities such as opening a bank account.
An hour before the event begins, free refreshments are offered to help create a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. The actors, comprised of Chaplaincy members, then role-play the common issues faced by international students, including the idiosyncracies of the Leeds area, its cultural history and understanding the local accent and idioms. The actors' performances follow a timeline displayed on a screen behind them (see above); this depicts the emotional highs and lows commonly experienced by students, from apprehension before leaving for a new country, to the excitement of arriving, the dip when one becomes homesick etc.
Nerys explains why students respond so well to the performance: "When the students see the play, they have often been in the country for a week or two and will have experienced some of the issues raised...the rush of the adventure, then hitting the wall of worry and self-doubt." So far in the 2016-17 academic year, around 2570 students from the University of Leeds and Leeds Beckett University have attended a 'Culture Shock' performance. The event lets students know that someone empathises with their struggles - Nerys has observed how students are sometimes in tears with relief at seeing their personal struggle being acted out before them and realising that someone else understands. At the end of the sessions, shoulder bags are handed out containing postcards, coasters, leaflets etc. all signposting support services and socialising opportunities: as Nerys says, "anything we can get in their hands to show support is available."
In June of each year, the Chaplaincy then offer a 'Reverse Culture Shock' sketch, once more role-playing the difficulties of adjusting back to students' respective home countries. The session prepares students for the response of family and friends upon their return, when life has carried on without them. In some cases, the student may feel quite different after having lived in Britain, where people are typically more outgoing and forthright. Here Nerys notes, in particular, Leeds' large population of Chinese students whose culture traditionally revolves around the family and is more reserved.
An early version of the 'Reverse Culture Shock' session on YouTube
Nerys describes how the play initially helps to break down barriers; from there, the Chaplaincy follow up the support by offering weekly international student sessions where everyone is welcome to come for a cup of tea and a chat. It is made clear that if any student experiences difficulties including racism or sexual harassment, that they can come and talk to Chaplaincy members, regardless of a student's religious beliefs. Crucially, this support continues throughout holiday periods which can be an especially lonely time for international students staying on campus when everyone has gone home and student services and provisions tend to wind down.
For more information on the Culture Shock performance and other wellbeing events run by the Universities Chaplaincy in Leeds, see http://unichaplaincy.org.uk