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#ChangingLivesForGood: UKCISA 50th Anniversary Conference blog

The 50th anniversary conference of UKCISA — the UK Council for International Student Affairs — took place in Edinburgh on the 27-29 June this year. Over the last fifty years, more than five million international students have come to study in the UK, and with a conference theme of #ChangingLivesForGood, the programme included a wide variety of sessions celebrating how international study can transform the lives of both international and domestic students, and the wider community, as well as showcasing the work taking place at UK universities to help international students to fulfill their potential. Here are just a few of our highlights over the three days.

Day one

On the first day of the conference, we heard from Louise Staunton (International Student Experience and Global Office Manager, Trinity College Dublin) and Dr Cheryl Rounsaville (Global Student Experience Manager, Nottingham Trent University) on how offering a ‘Global Lounge’ can enhance the student experience.

Cheryl described how NTU take a whole university approach when developing and delivering their support for international students, including an annual Global Week that aims to educate staff and students on different cultures and global issues, with over 100 stalls, events and workshops: “The idea is that it should be informative and fun. This is beneficial for staff too, helping them to better understand the background of the students they are working with. It can also help all of our students to be better prepared for working in an international labour market. We plan to repeat the event in January to make our new international students feel welcome.”

Throughout the academic year, including during the summer holidays, two Global Lounges are open until 7pm each day, giving students a place to relax and socialise, outside of lectures. Free refreshments are on offer, and if students want to chat about any issues or concerns, permanent members of staff are on hand, in addition to student volunteers.

Popular events include the free weekly Global Lunch which is usually attended by 150-200 students, providing the opportunity for domestic and international students to sit down and talk together. Students that are fluent in more than one language can volunteer in the Language Cafe, also held in the Global Lounges, offering a way for students to mix, make friends and learn something new. Cheryl explained that all activities are widely promoted to students through dedicated social media channels on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: “Students are encouraged to sign up to these accounts during Welcome Week to ensure they are well aware of what’s on offer.”

Crucially, all student volunteers are rewarded for their efforts with a certificate that they can show an employer, and a record of their contribution is included on their Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR).

Louise from Trinity College also observed the importance of finding ways to help students from different backgrounds come together: “Domestic students do say that they find it challenging to interact with international students at times, that they are uncertain of how to go about this. Initiatives such as [the Global Room] help students to engage with those who are culturally different. It is also important to remember that home students are not a homogeneous group either, there is diversity here too and they can also see and feel the appeal.”

Trinity College’s Global Room was established in 2012 with a view to creating a more internationally-focused space for the whole university community. The lounge itself is a large and colourful space, designed to encourage students to spend time there. Over 300 events have been held to date, including informative events on immigration, graduation, employment or finding accommodation, and celebrations around Diwali, St. Patrick’s Day and the Chinese New Year. Running up to exams, the Global Room turned into a puppy-petting room, meaning that international and domestic students had an opportunity to relax and integrate. The aim is to attract as many people as possible, and when Louise was seeking to secure funding for this work, she recognised the importance of stressing how internationalisation can benefit all students: “All students can have a global experience, even if they are from just down the road.”

This work is delivered by members of staff, and a team of 22 student ambassadors who give 5-7 hours of their time per week. Students can also get involved by writing blogs with advice for other international students, or conducting campus tours. Louise explained how vital it is to include students in this work: “If it is solely staffed by staff, students won’t engage. It was therefore essential that we developed our student ambassador programme.”

Day two

Day two included a session from Bangor University on the wide-reaching positive impact of their Internationals Go Green initiative. Head of International Student Services, Alan Edwards, and Clerical Officer, Marcel Clusa, explained that almost fifty international students are now involved in this work which seeks to educate students on sustainability and promote environmentally-friendly practices.

Students can join in with regular group litter-picking sessions around the City, and beach cleaning days (in partnership with the North Wales Wildlife Trust). A particularly popular initiative centered around Christmas 2017 when the student volunteers accompanied the North Wales Wildlife Trust to a local wetland area to learn about invasive tree species. Students help to chop down a tree, which was brought back to the University and put on display. All students were given the opportunity to make their own decorations for the tree from plastic items collected during previous litter-picking sessions, highlighting both the problem of littering and the value in up-cycling. Alan observed how the activity quickly prompted conversations between home and international students.

In addition to making the area a cleaner and more beautiful place in which to live, Alan and Marcel described how Go Green has helped students to socialise and make friends; improved community relations (in many university towns and cities, students can be blamed for anti-social behaviours, including littering); and promoted the diversity of cultures in North Wales. The Go Green initiative has even reached the local news. Following the success of its pilot year, Alan and Marcel are keen to work with other universities who are looking to implement something similar at their institution.

Day three

On the final day of the conference, we had the pleasure of presenting a session on how ProtectED aims to raise standards in international student safety, security and wellbeing. Key issues impacting students’ lives — both home and international — such as mental ill health, or the prevalence of sexual violence on university campuses, have been well documented. Universities are under mounting pressure to find an adequate response, particularly when 39% of institutions do not currently provide sexual misconduct training for staff, and only 29% of institutions have a mental health and wellbeing strategy.

The ProtectED Code of Practice contains measures to address student safety and security on and off campus, and provide appropriate support for student wellbeing and mental health. International students can also encounter additional problems related to culture shock, loneliness and difficulties adjusting to a new country. Therefore the Code of Practice includes further measures to support international students — structured to follow the student journey, from the pre-arrival stage, to during study — which was the focus of our presentation.

We discussed examples of good practice where universities already meet some of these measures, such as Aston University’s Meet and Greet scheme, where student volunteers meet international students from the airport, ensuring that they feel welcome and are able to arrive safely on campus. Or the University of Nottingham’s Pre-Departure Checklist; an informative guide for international students, created by staff and current international students, that includes blogs and video diaries, helping new students to prepare for life in the UK.

However, standards in student support vary widely across the sector. This is an issue for prospective students and their families when it comes to selecting a university, particularly those who have never visited the UK before. International students are increasingly concerned about safety when it comes to choosing where to study; 88% now say that a strong campus safety programme is either helpful, or very helpful, to their decision. In the US, a list of universities has recently been created, outlining which institutions provide focused support to help their international students to thrive at, and graduate from, university. The ProtectED accreditation process is rigorous and robust, offering international students a way of clearly identifying which universities have policies and procedures in place to support them across a wide range of safety and wellbeing issues.

The next UKCISA conference will be held 3-5 July 2019 at Keele University. The window for submitting a proposal opens in November 2018.

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