Five Top Tips for Integrating International and Domestic Students

Numerous studies have indicated that universities face challenges regarding international and domestic students’ integration. Carolin Debray and Helen Spencer-Oatey from the University of Warwick uncover what this means, if it matters, and what can be done about it.

What is meant by integration?

Integration means that students from diverse backgrounds:

• Take part together in social activities
• Chat and learn informally from each other in social settings
• Form friendships with each other
• Discuss and learn both formally and informally from each other in academic settings

Why is integration important?

A range of research studies have indicated that integration is beneficial for a number of reasons, including:

• Student well-being
• Student satisfaction
• Student retention
• Student achievement / learning gain
• Development of global attributes
• Fostering of global citizenship perspectives

Whose responsibility is it?

There is sometimes a tendency to ‘blame’ international students for sticking within their groups and for not making enough effort to mix, thus attributing the responsibility to them. In fact, it is everyone’s responsibility – domestic and international students, teaching and administrative staff as well as senior management. Interestingly, though, recent research using the Global Education Profiler indicates that UK domestic students on average attach less importance to social and academic integration than international students.

Using this and associated research, we have collected five tips to facilitate integration at your institution.

Tip 1. Maximise arrival experiences

A recent study titled ‘Promoting integration on campus: principles, practice and issues for further exploration’ emphasises that positive arrival experiences lead to positive experiences in later stages of students’ study.

Students tend to settle into friendship groups quite quickly, making it difficult to change them later and thus to get in contact with new groups of students. It is therefore particularly important to provide domestic and international students with ample opportunities to meet upon arrival. This includes organising a wide range of activities that appeal to different interests, so that friendships can form around shared hobbies rather than just shared language or nationality.

Tip 2. Address structural challenges

While both international and domestic students are often thought to be unwilling to mix, they frequently face structural difficulties out of their control. In many universities, most international students are postgraduates, while most domestic students are undergraduates making it harder for the groups to mingle. For arriving year-abroad students it is often easier to find friends amongst other year-abroad students as domestic students already have a fixed circle of friends making them less active in looking to meet new people.

Peer pressure and insecurities about language and cultural rules on both sides also add to the challenges. As Gordon Allport argues in ‘The Nature of Prejudice’, institutional endorsement of contact and collaboration is crucial in creating the setting for positive contact between different groups.

Universities therefore need to act to counter these structural challenges, especially in places where relationships can develop naturally, including:

• Living arrangements: ensuring a good student mix in university accommodation;
• Studying: promoting intercultural teamwork, providing common rooms where students can work and interact, organising departmental events across study levels;
• Extra-curricular activities: promoting the participation in sports teams and societies and ensuring they are willing and equipped to welcome diverse groups of students

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Tip 3. Emphasise the importance of personal growth

Approaching people different to ourselves requires effort and a willingness to deal with potentially uncomfortable situations. Students need to leave their comfort zones to meet and learn from others. While this is highly important for personal growth, students are also likely to experience things that annoy or upset them and there is then a risk of negative evaluations and stereotyping. To prevent this, students need to understand the value of moving out of their comfort zone and be given the tools to make the best out of their experiences. Tips 4 and 5 suggest two such tools supporting these processes that we have found particularly useful at the University of Warwick. 

Tip 4. Help students to reflect on experiences of difference

To maximise learning and to avoid negative evaluations, students need to reflect meaningfully on their encounters, especially those that were surprising, annoying or upsetting. At the University of Warwick, we find our Global PAD 3R tool particularly helpful for this. It encourages the following 3-step reflection:

• Report the facts of what happened
• Reflect on why it happened
• Re-evaluate after discussing with others

Tip 5. Encourage observation and behavioural ‘stretching’

Reflection is important, but it does not necessarily help with adjusting actual behaviour. Yet, domestic and international students will need to make behavioural adjustments, for example in greetings and turn-taking in discussions.

Such adjustments entail a range of steps, including careful observation and some behavioural ‘stretching’ in which people make minor adjustments that enable them to fit in more adequately with others’ behaviour. We have found work by Andy Molinsky particularly insightful for this and have developed the Global PAD DIARy tool to guide students through this adjustment process.

The ISB helps institutions make informed decisions to enhance the international student experience and drive successful recruitment and marketing strategies.

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