By Peter Hanami
Integrating students is a common challenge facing all institutions that accept international students. Teachers often ask “How can I stop the class being divided into local students on one side of the class and international students the other side”? Impossible? In this article I will outline five steps institutions can consider when undertaking an integration plan and draw on my professional experiences working with international students in Australia, New Zealand, United States, United Kingdom and Japan.
The aim of any integration plan is to get international students and local students to work together in an effective way 1 or put another way, to become part of the campus and be accepted 2.
In Japanese, the word “integrate” is represented by the word tokekomu, which is made up of two ideas combined, the first , tokeru, 溶ける, which means melt, dissolve, or fade into and the second, komu, 込む , meaning to include, devote oneself to and to concentrate on 3. The definition takes on a personal meaning that is particularly useful for managing international students.
The key to successful integration is to equip the student with the tools, skills and attributes required to effectively participate.
Step 1 – Respect the student’s culture
International students often study with institutions for relatively short periods of time. By focusing on international students as customers and not students, changes the relationship and the management of international students.
Respecting a student’s culture, for example: who they are, where they come from and what they value, allows a stronger relationship to be formed. If a student feels comfortable they are more likely to succeed in their new study environment.
For Example: By providing a Japanese speaking guide as a greeter at the airport for a new Japanese student a unique positive first impression is created. By also providing Japanese students access to Japanese food and groceries they enjoyed at home also helps. Added to this the ability to speak Japanese with a full time staff member and access to a computer that reads Japanese characters are all important touches to show the student that you understand their culture.
In my experience, the way to successfully integrate international students is by having a detailed understanding of the student’s culture. I have found that by analyzing the important components of a student’s culture provides clues as to what skills they require and how to best communicate them.
A starting point to understand culture is to look at some of the major components such as food, language, values, religion and education background. Food plays a major part of life in most cultures, for example, the majority of Japanese people eat rice at every meal. If it rice is not available at your institutions cafeteria, how are you catering to this students food needs? The student may stay in their room more rather than interact as they feel compelled to create food that meets their needs.
Let me share an experience I encountered. A Japanese student who started at a home stay didn’t eat for the first three days after arriving in Australia. The student had paid money for a home stay and expected three meals a day to be provided. The home stay family had purchased food but wanted the student to make their own meals. Problem: Different expectations. The student left the home stay because she could no longer trust the home stay family. The home stay family was left scratching their head wondering what went wrong. A number of issues can be seen in the example. Firstly, the home stay family was more interested in money than the student, secondly the student expected a service after paying a large sum of money in advance, thirdly, self service is uncommon in Japan and finally, you only have one chance to make a good first impression.
If only the home stay family had better understood the students culture. How a pair of slippers, a hot bath and a bowl of fresh rice would have made this student more comfortable on arrival at her new house and created a more favourable impression.
Respecting a student’s culture creates a positive element that is particularly conducive for building trust and starting the process of integration.
Step 2 – Quantify your institution expectations of international students?
Reality check! An international student will never be able to integrate 100% no matter how ambitious your institutions goals. Why? An international student cannot stop being who they already are. That is a creation of their own culture. No matter how much they want to change, adapt or participate.
Does your institution expect international students to understand such things as: The rules of college football? to play sport? Be able to tell and understand jokes? Use slang? make conversations with strangers? Share their opinions? Mix well with a wide range of people in English? A typical Japanese student wouldn’t be able to perform any of the above unless they were trained specifically.
By having a clear set of expectations of what skills and abilities your institution expects of international students allows a better chance of communicating them and for students to learn them.
For example: What does your faculty staff expect from international students? In a Marketing class, is the student required to collect, analyze and question all the information provided in a class and direct creative based questions to provoke the class thinking? Or to participate by adding their own opinion? What do library staff expect of international students when they study in the library? How patient are your staff when a student speaks in broken English?
Creating a specific list of required skills, abilities and knowledge provides a tangible starting place on how to best communicate, train and educate students to actively participate.
Step 3 Analyze your culture and consider the best way to share it.
What do international students need to know to fully participate at your institution? What are the key things they need to know? How can you analyze your culture and convey it simply to students?
For Example: How would you describe the learning style in American schools, the role of the teacher, the skills a student requires to participate effectively in class? What are the priorities of an American teacher, i.e., spelling, attendance, participation or handing assignments in on time?
To a Japanese student, who only knows the Japanese education system, the above questions are top of mind when studying abroad. The typical questions a Japanese students asks, include: what’s different between Japan and this institution?, what do I need to know?, how can I learn it?, who can teach me?, is their a cultural rule book?, how do I communicate with fellow students when I’m not confident speaking English? What does the teacher expect of me as an international student? and what do I need to do to survive this class?
Sadly we don’t often take this much effort in understanding what the student needs but we need to.
The following provides an interesting insight into how an Asian student views their own culture.
“The Asian culture, in a sense, is more feminine. We tend to be quiet and reserved. We follow instructions, we don't voice our opinions, we show respect. We call our elders by 'uncle' our 'aunt' - everyone, whether we're related or not. Back home, there's a hierarchy in terms of how you treat people”. Nicholas Ling, a Malaysian architecture student, studying at an Australian University 4.
What can your institution do to better prepare international students for study?
Step 4 Make available all relevant study information in the students native language
If an institution’s own language is English the majority of information given to students will be in English.
For Japanese students to study overseas they need a certain level of English to understand lectures, take notes and participate in classes but this does not necessarily mean that they are comfortable with English. A high TOEIC score does not reflect a student’s competency in using the language or their confidence.
It is vitally important for institutions to step back and see the amount of information given from the student’s perspective.
Students may be able to read the information but do they have the time, ability and cultural knowledge to understand the information and to act in the same way a local student would?
Providing key information in the students native language doesn’t reduce the student’s English ability. What it does is increase the students comfort level and provides confidence that they can participate on the same level as a local student knowing they have the same information.
Step 5 Increase student opportunities for participation.
When I interview Japanese students about their study abroad experiences a common theme that comes up is how to make friends with local people. Most students share their anguish of not being able to speak English well enough and their lack of ability to make friendships. Often it is not the English language ability that impacts their ability to make friends but the lack of opportunities to interact with local students.
Institutions can increase opportunities by actively creating events and encouraging international students to participate.
For Example: Japanese culture is group based and so it is common for Japanese to do many activities with groups of people and not individually. Therefore, to be faced to undertake an activity alone is a daunting task for a Japanese student. To overcome this personal invitation to participate with a group can quickly get a Japanese student involved. Fear of failure, making mistakes and uncertainty are reduced and a common bond can be quickly formed.
An international student co-coordinator at a High School once told me during a research project, “We have found that once a student has local friends, most of their daily worries tend to disappear their confidence grows and they blossom”
It is worthwhile to consider creating a range of events and opportunities that continuously allow international students to meet and interact with local people.
Individual personal preferences collected during the recruitment process can be used to specifically create personalized meaningful activities in which each student can participate in.
Integration is an ongoing challenge for all institutions and one that must be carefully planned for, monitored and continuously reviewed. To adequately ensure students are integrated, institutions should develop an Integration department with staff devoted full time to the cause. Ultimately a student’s success is dependent on how comfortable they feel and how able they are to participate in an institution.
International students are people and managing people requires considerable effort, planning and commitment. International students add an extra dimension to the management equation as they have different backgrounds, beliefs and values. Therefore considerably more planning, research and understanding is required to meet the challenge.
The benefits that international students bring to institutions and the positive contribution’s they make therefore deserve our constant full attention.
Copyright Peter Hanami. 2005, All Rights Reserved.
This article appeared in Institute of International Education Networker magazine and website in 2006.
1. 2003, Dictionary of Contemporary English, Longman imprint, Pearson Education Limited, Essex, England, United Kingdom.
2. 2003, Dictionary of Contemporary English, Longman imprint, Pearson Education Limited, Essex,
England, United Kingdom.
3. Nelson, Andrew and Hag, John (1999) The Compact Nelson, Japanese English Character Dictionary, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc, Tokyo, Japan.
4. Stark, J (2005) Hello Stranger, Language and cultural barriers prevent many of Victoria's Asian students from mixing with the locals, Age Newspaper, Internet: accessed, September 19, 2005, www.theage.com.au