By Neha Qazi and co-authored by Katie Rigg, Head of Safeguarding & Student Well-being
The transition from secondary school to higher education is challenging for any student. International students transitioning across countries and cultures can face additional stressors.
I’ve moved around a lot, but this transition is different because my family is not coming with me; I need to do it on my own terms—school student
I struggled to find and make a community at university […] international student orientation was helpful, but I felt lonely at the start—university student
Thrown into the deep end of life, wondering if we will swim or have the skills to swim in totally new waters—university student
To gain greater insight into the international student experience during these transitions, ten CIS member schools and universities have dedicated time to learn more from these students as part of a project that we launched in 2020. They explored the pressures they face to understand how their colleagues and wider institutions can better support them during this significant transitional phase in their young lives.
Here are three themes and associated recommendations that have emerged so far from our project (there will be more to follow as we are still gathering data). The key resources and professional development opportunities can help both schools and universities strengthen their transition programmes.
1. Cultural transitions and building a community
I do feel that being an international student you have a unique starting point. You may be better adapted to survive—university student
Some international students felt that they were well placed to adapt to new cultures, given their existing experience with transitions between international schools, countries, and different cultural contexts. They were nonetheless still worried about whether they would be able to make friends and form a community in another new country with different cultural and social norms. They were concerned that they had inadequate cultural knowledge about social norms, whether to introduce themselves with pronouns or talk about their hobbies and how social media introductions might differ from physical ones. Students highlighted challenges with cross-cultural communication, one student explained how she had inadvertently caused offence using sarcasm. Another student who didn’t drink alcohol was worried about initiations and peer pressure. Several students talked about the difficulties of studying in a language that is different from your first language. There were concerns about how students would react to their accent and how tiring they’d find it.
University students reflected on their transition talked about different aspects of culture shock ranging from diet to religion to mannerisms and customs.
In my country, we don’t eat rice on a daily basis, unlike here.
I constantly had to tell people about my religion because they always assumed the wrong thing.
I noticed that when I reached out with my left hand people will just stare.
Student recommendations to schools and universities:
- spend more time helping them to learn about and adjust to new cultural contexts and teaching them social skills to navigate new cultural experiences
- provide more information about cultural and social norms, mental health and how to fit in focus on helping students form connections and build community from an early stage.
Several university students talked about how their on-campus living arrangement/residence had helped them fit in, be accepted and build a community.
International students in residence were able to be accepted much faster.
Living in residence forced you to make friends and forced them to accept you.
It was residence for me too! It gave me a sense of community and my roommates became my family away from home.
2. Personal safety and discrimination
Several students were worried about their personal safety at university. Fears around crime, sexual violence, and discrimination all featured.
I feel safe [in my country] and I will need to learn how to be safe [in the city where I am going to study].
Worrying about discrimination has influenced my decision […] where I could be victimized or harassed.
Is my race going to define me differently in a new place?
Students encouraged schools and universities to:
- deliver a truly multicultural education that talks about race and culture in international settings.
- create safe spaces to have reflective discussions about sensitive and ‘taboo’ subjects such as racism, non-binary individuals and gender expression.
They felt that these topics were not discussed in their school, leaving them unprepared to form new social connections. They also asked for help to recognise personal biases and understand stereotypes.
3. Narrow definition of success
One of the most common fears cited by students was the fear of not living up to the expectations that people had of them. Some students felt that their parents and teachers still expected them to follow a traditional pathway—to graduate from university with a degree in a ‘standard’ subject like law, medicine or engineering. They felt that this narrow definition of success made it difficult for students who wanted to take a different path or didn’t live up to this ‘ideal’.
Should I choose a course because I am expected to?
What if I drop out—what will people think? Will I still be recognized if I drop out?
You’re lazy if you don’t carry on studying and lazy people are not liked.
Having to make life choices is hard and adds pressure, what if I get it wrong?
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 chose something risky.
Students urged schools to:
- provide more information during middle and high school about different pathways and life possibilities and adopt a broader definition of success.
- educate parents on non-traditional pathways. Several students said that conversations with school alum had been constructive at preparing them for university and giving them exposure to different pathways.
Cross-cultural mental health
Culture influences what gets defined as a problem, how the problem is understood and which solutions to the problem are acceptable” (Gopalkrishnan, 2018).
Research into cross-cultural mental health (Gopalkrishnan, N, 2018) shows that the stressors students face in transition—their identity and sense of belonging, their resilience and coping mechanisms—are all shaped by cultural background and context. It’s essential for school and university staff to understand how different cultures define issues like success and address mental health challenges and understand how different identity markers can impact student transition experiences to support culturally diverse student populations through transitions. We’ll delve deeper into this and provide more information about these aspects in future blogs and during our Mental Health & Well-being Workshop for CIS members on 2–4 November.
We’d like to thank the leaders, counsellors, admissions staff and students that have participated in this project so far, as well as the advisory group (members listed below) that has expertly supported this project to date. We will publish more blogs plus resources on the CIS Community portal, with further findings and recommendations. For now, I’ll leave you with advice from a student that is relevant to all of us:
You are the one who knows how hard you have been working and how far you’ve gone from the last point to today. You need to celebrate your progress and should find satisfaction from your own work and stop comparing yourself with others. That way, you will feel better and able to keep on going.
Explore these themes and more at our Mental Health & Well-being Workshop
Join us to learn more about the emerging findings and recommendations from this project. Learn from global experts about how to support international students transitioning across cultures and how schools and universities can embed social emotional learning throughout their institution. Explore how to safeguard the mental health of under-represented and marginalised students, with a focus on LGBTQ+, race and mental health.
Professional development opportunities:
- Mental Health & Well-being Workshop for CIS members on 2–4 November
- SPAN Laws of transitions training courses
Resources and CIS data on student well-being and transitions:
- Student Minds transition toolkits
- Resilient travelling: Managing stress & enhancing your experience abroad
- First-generation unique challenges
- Preparing for college emotionally, not just academically
- 5 steps to mental health and well-being
- Parent edition-emotional support at college
- Self-care toolkit
Resources to help tackle discrimination:
- CIS webinar: Tackling discrimination: being culturally responsive & leveraging polarities 12 October 2021–members can log in and register via the CIS Community portal
- Model skills to cope with discrimination
- A guide to becoming an ally
- Decolonising education: The challenge of whiteness
- Coping with race related stress
Advisory group members:
- Jane Foster (https://www.uwc.org/board/jane-foster)
- Ashley Sills (https://globalissuesnetwork.org/gin-directors/)
- Linda Sills (https://globalissuesnetwork.org/gin-directors/)
- Doug Ota (https://www.safepassage.nl/)
- Katrina Edmunds (Katrina Edmunds (She / Her/ Hers) – Academic Counselor – International School of Lausanne | LinkedIn)
- Salisha Randel (https://www.ryerson.ca/international/admissions/connect-with-us/)
- Isaac Garcia Sitton (https://www.ryerson.ca/international/admissions/connect-with-us/)
- Charlotte Hamilton (https://www.patana.ac.th/meet-the-new-teacher-charlotte-hamilton-secondary-careers-and-universities-counsellor/)
- Eleanor Parker (https://www.kcl.ac.uk/people/eleanor-parker)
- Valérie Besanceney (https://www.spanschools.org/board-members)
- Ellen Mahoney (https://www.nesacenter.org/events/past-events/fall-leadership-conference-2019/ellen-mahoney)
- Chen Justin (https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/health-happiness/people/justin-chen-md-mph/)
- Student well-being
- University admission & guidance