Student well-being perspectives on cross cultural transitions to higher education
Student well-being perspectives on cross cultural transitions to higher education
Student well-being perspectives on cross cultural transitions to higher education
 CIS staff photo of Katie Rigg


By Neha Qazi, Well-Being Coordinator and Katie Rigg, Head of Safeguarding & Student Well-being



For many years, the mental health and well-being of international students making the transition from secondary school to higher education have been a key area of focus for international schools and universities worldwide.

In this post, we take a look at gaps in our knowledge and practice and learn from student perspectives and recommendations for schools and universities (and our members can access additional student insights and perspectives on the CIS Community portal). 


Gaps in knowledge & practice

Illustration of a female student choosing her pathway from multiple directions

In 2019, our CIS members identified the following gaps in knowledge and practice:

  • student voice is sometimes missing from conversations about transitions care
  • there isn’t yet enough cross-sector learning between schools and universities
  • the cultural and social aspects of international student transitions are under-explored

In 2020, we launched a project to address these gaps and inform school and university transition programmes for international students.

We learned from 94 international students at 3 CIS universities and 8 CIS schools who engaged with the project. All the students were preparing for or had recently undergone a cross-cultural transition to higher education.


Student perspectives to guide our way

The students highlighted key elements of their secondary school experiences that helped them prepare for their transitions to higher education.

They included:

  • support provided by their guidance counsellor and teachers
  • conversations with alumni
  • access to university open days
  • access to information about career pathways
  • work experience

Many students talked about the pressures they felt when choosing where and what to study, with the pressure to choose a ‘safe’ subject and to choose the ‘right’ path featuring in almost all conversations with secondary school students.

There is an expectation that you can follow law, medicine or engineering, and those are some of the only pathways.

You’re lazy if you don’t carry on studying, and lazy people are not liked.

There is this internal pressure, there are things and courses I’d love to do, but it’s too risky; it’s better to not choose something risky.

‘Having to make life choices so early is hard and adds pressure. What if I get it wrong?’

‘What if I drop out? What will people think? Will I still be recognized if I drop out?’

‘What if I do the whole thing and I’m not happy? What if I screw up?’

University students who looked back on their transitions talked about having to consider a new cultural environment alongside managing their finances, maintaining their grades, organizing day-to-day chores, making friends and taking care of their well-being.

‘Worrying about discrimination has influenced my decision to apply to x country rather than y country where I could be victimized or harassed.’

I found it difficult communicating with [non-international] students because of the language barrier.’ 

‘The idea of doing initiations scares me, I don’t drink and I don’t want to, so how will I fit in?’

‘The bureaucracy in different countries scares me, and I don’t know how I will deal with it.’

They described various steps taken by their universities that had helped them to succeed, including community building in residence, connections with other international students, and their university’s use of social media.

Seminars with previous students, online calls with alumni have been really helpful, seeing what life is like, from a realistic perspective.

‘The Medical Society has been very helpful, the clubs that help you to get an idea of the profession.’

‘Making friends in residence helped me to cope and open up about my struggles.’

Students from both sides of the transition experience said that they would have liked more support related to social-emotional and life skill development and preparation for cultural adaptation.

I have been going to therapy for a long time… this was important to continue in university, having that support and outlet of sharing how I was feeling.

‘The school does not prepare us for a culture shock.’


Student recommendations for schools and universities

Student recommendations for secondary schools focused on introducing transitions care at an earlier stage, facilitating discussions about students’ fears and concerns and about sensitive topics, and strengthening connections with alumni.

Recommendations for universities included:

  • social media support groups
  • efforts to help international students integrate into the wider community while retaining their own sense of identity and culture
  • logistical and practical support 

Our members can read a full briefing on this project via the CIS Community Portal for schools and universities.

We also asked a small group of participating students to write about their experiences and their thoughts on how both schools and universities can do more to support international students.

Here are some extracts:

‘I believe social media is seriously undervalued by some universities. Social media in today's society is an invaluable tool to reach potential students as well as increase the general reputation of the university. This is because the university can very easily provide insight into the lives of students at the university and all the positive aspects of their programs. A university active on social media also gives the impression that it is alive and always working to better itself - a prospect appealing to students considering studies there.’

‘Shifting from one academic setting to another, I was definitely caught off guard by the amount of free reign and responsibility I had to shoulder on my own. No one was making sure I attended class, no one was nagging me to complete my homework, and no one got mad if I chose not to do any of the above.

‘The biggest things university will teach you right off the bat are accountability, independence and responsibility—in the best way possible.

‘Post-secondary ideally sets you up for life, not only in the traditional sense where it provides you with an education that will lead to a career and a livelihood. It also equips you with soft skills, lived experiences and introduces you to people that will help you grow as an individual.’

‘[…] what truly helped me make my decision was the Q&A sessions that some of these universities offered. It not only gave me a more in-depth understanding of the major that interested me the most but also demonstrated more of how the university and their students were like in other ways than what they offer on their website.’

‘If I were in charge of a school, I would try and remove as much pressure and workload as possible off the shoulders of the G12s applying to universities so they can put more time and energy into it. I would also set up mandatory courses as early as the start of Grade11 or end of Grade 10, so students can be aware of how important this will be, how time-consuming it is, and how they start their research and choices.’

‘I believe there should be 2 different websites for each university, one for new applicants and one for the actual university, with an easy bridge between the two. The applicant website would have everything that the applicant would need, and nothing more, so applicants do not get lost and confused in a content—heavy website’.


More reflections and recommendations to explore in full

Our members can read some of the student reflections in full in the CIS Community portal; it's a PDF called Student reflections on their experience of transitioning from secondary school to higher education.

CIS member schools can find a PDF download along with other useful resources here: CIS Community portal for schools > KnowledgeBase > University Guidance & Student transition > Resources > Cross cultural transitions insights

CIS member universities can find a PDF download along with other useful resources here: CIS Community portal for universities > Services > Student recruitment > Resources >Cross cultural transitions insights



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