Dr Mark Cunnington: Overcoming culture shock — supporting international students through a complex transition

A group of students on an experience day

This article was originally published by Education Technology Insights. You can read their version here.

International education is an incredibly valuable opportunity for both the student and the community of which they become a part. For the student, in addition to academia it is a chance to learn about different ways of life, reflect on their personal values, and develop their problem-solving and communication skills – all invaluable for global citizens and future leaders.

Understanding culture shock

Transitioning from high school to university is a challenge for any student, never mind the additional shock of being immersed in a completely new culture faced by international students.

Without adequate support, it can feel overwhelming and lonely to be far from home and in a strange place. More often than not, international students will be working in a second or even third language and have to adapt to an unfamiliar academic environment. Outside of the classroom, the logistics of everyday tasks like travelling and paying bills can also add stress.

Culture shock can affect students’ mental health and academic performance, creating a dangerous spiral that can result in these individuals not achieving their academic potential or, even worse, dropping out. It is important therefore that higher education institutions help to ease the transition.

Addressing culture shock

One of the keys to overcoming culture shock is to prepare students ahead of time and this is where technology can play a vital role in preparing international students for their experiences to come. Online learning allows for pre-arrival courses to be accessible to students at times to suit them and accessible in their home country, ahead of their arrival in their chosen country of study. For example, Study Group’s online pre-arrival programme Prepare for Success focuses on building students’ language abilities, academic confidence, and digital literacy, as well as cultural and mental health resilience and coping techniques to help them adjust.

This short course, delivered virtually and prior to a student’s arrival at their study destination, is a great way to prepare them for their international higher education experience. It introduces students to important topics such as keeping money safe, domestic wellbeing, and socialising, as well as practical skills like CV writing and interview preparation.

Another important consideration is language ability. Language practice in a classroom setting can be so far removed from the everyday use of that language, that it can feel demoralising when a student takes their skills into the real world for the first time. Rehearsals with native speakers provide an opportunity for international students to practice what they’ve learnt, which will aid in-country study and socialisation, ensuring that students feel confident.

Pre-arrival courses also bring international students together into a virtual community, giving them a chance to meet others in their situation and work through the challenges of culture shock together. Although students may go on to different courses, they will have established friends they can lean on throughout their time studying abroad.

Shereen from Bahrain, who studied at Cardiff University International Study Centre in the UK, said, “I think Prepare for Success teaches you all about different aspects of university life. It’s the perfect length because you don’t feel like it’s too overwhelming.”

Furthering the student experience

Higher education institutions can take steps, such as through the availability of pre-arrival courses, to reduce student discomfort. This approach has already shown positive results with over 4,000 students engaging in Study Group’s Prepare for Success programme, and it is an area of support that more institutions across the globe should consider deploying digitally.

The Higher Education sector has made significant improvements to the logistics of welcoming international students and providing a world-leading experience, but there is always room to go further. Differences in culture are an integral part of what makes studying abroad valuable, but a difficult culture shock doesn’t have to be part of that experience.