One of the elements of the winning formula at Rochester Independent College is the dynamic mix of local students with inspirational young people from overseas. At RIC 70% of our 345 students are British and international students from 30 different countries study alongside them each year. Former RIC A level student and current Admissions Administrator Georgina Winney explores how integration can be promoted in boarding schools and the benefits it brings.
The decision to leave behind your family and relocate around the world to be educated is a huge one and one that comes with challenges that we as boarding schools should be aware of in order to make this transition as easy as possible. This is something that Rochester Independent College does well by implementing many different activities and by always providing a listening ear for our students to voice their concerns.
When moving to a new school, international students leave behind their social support networks which can be difficult to re-establish in a new country where there are more social barriers than students are used to. This can be particularly problematic for students moving from different cultures where close relationships are promoted, to a country where we have a more individualistic society (Skromanis et al., 2018). It is our role then to make sure students are supported in re-establishing social support in their new surroundings, both with staff members and more importantly in finding friends.
Making friends in a new school can be intimidating and when there is a language barrier and cultural differences to navigate this task can become even harder. It has been shown that one of the main factors in how quickly students adapt to their new country was how soon they establish a friendship group. Students have often left behind a large friendship group or a collection of close friends, whom they have built a relationship with over many years. Students who find themselves to be the only member of a certain nationality or culture have been shown to make more international friendships and this can be facilitated by encouraging them to mix with others in boarding who may share common interests. For those who find they belong to a larger cultural group they find it easier to make connections with others in their group as they will have an understanding of the cultural background and the possibility of a shared first language. This is not to be discouraged as students must feel settled but it would be advised to help them consider meeting others from outside of this comforting bubble to give them a more varied student experience.
ISI reported that at Rochester “Relationships between pupils are totally inclusive, creating a harmonious community of day and boarding pupils.” Alex Song from China, now studying at Politics at SOAS, confirms: “There were more local students here than expected but this was good – to be honest, there is not much difference between the national or international students. We are all students together.”
Studies have shown that international students desire contact with home students to enrich their experience of studying in another country (Ward, 2001). These are the relationships we should therefore be facilitating. In boarding this is done through trips and activities, especially with our boarding induction day where students work in teams to complete tasks such as orienteering or boating on the local river. In Year 12 there is a similar day where students will be grouped together with those they don’t know to participate in activities. We should look to do this more often making sure that international students are given the opportunity to get to know home students. Research has shown that despite the desire to have contact with home students, international students are often put off from approaching them, as they feel they already have set social groups due to their shared cultural background. What we therefore should make apparent to our international students is that a lot of the Rochester cohort each year are new to the College and although they may share a cultural background they too are in a position of not knowing anyone; and are probably also finding the prospect of meeting new people quite daunting. Viviana D’Esposito from Italy says: “I made more friends more quickly and from a broader range of people because I was on the Student Council, which was a really great opportunity to meet loads of different people that I otherwise would not have spoken to, let alone made such good friends with."
It has been shown that sharing accommodation with people from other cultures facilitates social interactions which can be built upon to form the basis of friendship (Bryne et at, 2019). This is something we feel we do well at Rochester. Students have their own individual bedrooms but the houses are mixed culturally and students can spend time together in the shared communal areas. We also have found that our cultural themed food nights have been extremely popular and break down some of the barriers that exist between international and British students in boarding. Bonding over food is something common to most cultures and experiencing new things allows for an open mindedness leading to conversation. Food brings people together and has the ability to help international students overcome other stressors in their relocation to a new country. (Bryne et al, 2019). Therefore, these events we host help students feel more at home, going forward incorporating more foods from different cultures may help our students settle in more quickly as it gives them a little bit of home whilst they are abroad. We have already taken on board suggestions from our students and now provide chopsticks in the canteen for those who wish to use them instead of metal cutlery.
We should all be aware of the stresses of moving to a new country to pursue education for our international students. They will be experiencing new culture, new educational experiences, working in a different time zone and navigating making new friendships. All these stressors can have a negative impact on student health and yet international students may be reluctant to step forward and speak to someone about their issues. Barriers to seeking help with health and mental health can be poor awareness of the support available and how to access it, language barriers and/or the perceived stigma of asking for help and any impact disclosing a problem may have on their academic performance (Ting & Hwang., 2009). Therefore, it is essential that we ensure students know where to turn when they are in need and that a greater understanding of mental health is given to those who may not have been given an understanding of its negative effects prior to their move to the UK.
Here are Rochester we have a great team in boarding including our International Coordinators who operate an open-door policy where students can drop in and talk about any issues they may be facing. One thing that students seem to appreciate is the ability of the team to speak many languages which allows many of them to converse in their native language. In being able to talk freely without the fear of a language barrier problems can be addressed more quickly and issues are not misunderstood. The team are able to translate the students’ concerns and pass them to the appropriate member of staff who is then able to address them correctly. In some ways when unwell it could be a comfort for students to be able to speak to someone in their native language as it will give them a reminder of their social networks at home and remove further stress of trying to explain symptoms they may not know the translation for.
We also have our onsite nurse and nurse assistant who work with the boarding team to ensure our students are well cared for and their health needs addressed. We also have close links with the doctor’s surgery where our students are registered and on a couple of occasions they have asked if a student will require an interpreter in their appointment. With the team and external sources working together to ensure students are supported we feel that their issues are listened to and that they feel secure at the College. Students should feel that they have someone who is able to listen to them. Our personal tutors, form tutors and boarding team work as one to pass messages about student progress and welfare to make sure that all aspects of the students experience are monitored to ensure they have the best time possible and gain the most from their experience.
Chloe Xu from China, now studying Philosophy and Economics at the LSE says "I chose RIC for a comprehensive education – there are lots of different nationalities and loads of different subjects.The boarding is really flexible which I like and the boarding staff are always available if you need anything. The classes are much smaller here than in China so you and the teacher can easily ask each other questions. The teachers are all really nice!”
Studying alongside international students also has benefits for our home students. By mixing with international students in classes, everyone experiences a broader experience of life and may also learn new ways of tackling problems as educational understanding and techniques blend together in our small class sizes. Working with students who have come to us due to their educational performance such as the Thai scholars who the College proudly host each year, gives home students an incentive to work harder to keep up with their peers. This healthy competition in the classroom is of benefit to all and also allows students to work together, forming bonds as they tackle problems and overcome them as a collective. By working together in the classroom, they may also then develop conversation between classes which in time will develop into a stronger bond. Whether this remains as classmates or blossoms into a friendship does not necessarily matter, what does is the shared companionship, allowing home students to develop their cultural understanding, whilst helping international students feel more supported and part of the whole school community.
Home students may also find that their social skills develop when spending time with international students as they overcome language barriers in their communication. With the current translation apps available this is becoming easier all the time, students can use their phones to instantly show each other words that they do not understand and in doing so communication becomes quicker. This is also something that can be considered in the classroom where terminology may be tricky for international students, they should be given the opportunity to translate words or phrases into their native language to aid their understanding. Here at Rochester our fantastic EAL team work with our students on phrases and vocabulary that is common in their subjects to aid their understanding and thus improve their performance in the classroom. By taking the time to explain what terms mean students are able to fully access the material rather than being left with gaps in their knowledge cause by a lack of understanding caused by the language barrier.
With the current coronavirus situation our role in supporting our international students grows. We must make sure that they are aware of any issues surrounding their arrival into the country, this can be done by making sure we keep up to date with the UKVI advice and keep in close contact with our visa solicitors. Any changes to how and when students can arrive in the country and quarantine measures they must take should be passed on to parents, agents and guardians in a timely manner so that they can adjust plans accordingly. When students arrive at the College they should be aware of any measures in place to keep them and others safe and healthy. This should be done in a factual and calm way to maintain a sense of trust and to prevent a sense of panic within the student body. We should remind them that we are all adjusting to this new form of education and they are not alone in their experiences. Perhaps if possible a translation of the advice can be provided to students on arrival, so that they have something to read that won’t come with an additional language barrier.
Most importantly though we should continue as we always have, which is to be warm and receptive and to do our utmost to make sure the students who have opted to leave everything they know behind are welcomed warmly, encouraged academically and supported pastorally to ensure they have the best experience of the UK education system possible.
Byrne, E., Brugha, R., & McGarvey, A. (2019). 'A melting pot of cultures' -challenges in social adaptation and interactions amongst international medical students. BMC medical education, 19(1), 86. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-019-1514-1
Skromanis, S., Cooling, N., Rodgers, B., Purton, T., Fan, F., Bridgman, H., Harris, K., Presser, J., & Mond, J. (2018). Health and Well-Being of International University Students, and Comparison with Domestic Students, in Tasmania, Australia. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(6), 1147. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15061147