Lee, who set up his agency almost nine years ago, believes that the Internet has made his students more aware of cultural differences over the years, but they are still consistently surprised by certain elements of accommodation etiquette and classroom dynamics, and of course the occasional bemusing sight in the street, such as elderly people munching on Maltesers.
“Teachers in places like the UK can seem on your level, almost like a friend, but at the end of the day they are still the teacher,” he considers. “And having to let your homestay family know you will miss a meal the day before is very hard for a Korean student to understand.”
“Teachers in places like the UK can seem on your level, almost like a friend, but at the end of the day they are still the teacher”
Fulya Yalezan Yilmaz founder of test centre and agency Tec Istanbul tells me pets, wearing shoes in the house and putting vinegar on chips are just some aspects of life in the UK that she doesn’t think Turkish students will ever get used to.
“If it’s their first time travelling internationally they find it quite a shock to find cats sitting on table tops and dogs lying on the sofa,” she recounts. “One student told me his homestay had put the cat’s bowl in the dishwasher and washed it with everybody else’s bowl. Obviously he wanted to move straight away!”
As if mastering another language inside a new home and classroom wasn’t enough, international students are thrown into an alien environment of different accents, social norms, transport systems, currency, weather and the fact that almost everything they encounter is unlike the lifestyle they are used to.
But what can educational agents and educators themselves do to prepare students for cultural assimilation into their new study destination?
“The students have no idea of what’s ahead, they just want to fly,” remarks Sue Magan, who has been sending Spanish students on overseas programmes for almost 20 years through her educational consultancy firm IEC Lynk.
“The students have no idea of what’s ahead, they just want to fly”
This company, like many other educational agencies around the world, does a lot of groundwork trying to open students’ eyes before they travel. And in Magan’s case, she even brings in returning IEC Lynk alumni to share their experiences.
“Prior to departure, we organise a “Go-USA”, “Go-UK” or “Go-wherever their destination may be” meeting and introduce the students to each other; each has a story to tell, they share email addresses, swap excitement,” she says.
Magan divulges that for Spanish students, the study expectations can often provide the most dramatic shock to the system. “Students in the English-speaking institutions are expected to take control of their studies, plan to reach objectives and consult with their tutors,” she says. “It is a massive adaptation.”
Educators themselves seem to be doing a good job of helping students acclimatise. In a survey undertaken for The PIE Review almost 60% of international students either agreed or strongly agreed that their educational institution helped them adjust to cultural differences and a marginal 12% thought that their institution did not help them at all.
Almost 60% of international students either agreed or strongly agreed that their educational institution helped them adjust to cultural differences
Queen’s University in Kingston, ONT is the latest Canadian university to soften the landing for its international cohort, having recently introduced a new support programme named “Acculturation and Transition to Life and Academic Success“ (ATLAS).
The one-day initiation comprises physical, emotional, spiritual, health and wellness initiatives, library services and intercultural competency training. This year it will host students from 16 different countries including China, India, the UK, Indonesia, Qatar, the USA, Trinidad and Tobago, Japan, Vietnam, Nigeria, Korea, Sweden, Hong Kong and Ireland.
“Everyone experiences the effects of adjusting to a new culture; it is a normal experience,” affirms creator of the programme and Assistant Director at the Queen’s University International Centre, Susan Anderson. “But ATLAS starts the process of easing discomfort and seizing the opportunity for self-awareness and personal development.”
Anderson is a firm believer in finding a healthy equilibrium between acknowledging the student’s own cultural identity while also encouraging them to embrace a new culture, which she feels not only helps them make friends, but ultimately leads to their academic success.
While Anderson and her colleagues are using this year’s ATLAS programme as a pilot scheme, the university’s support across the board, including the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs and its membership services, means Anderson is confident she can grow the programme in coming years. “We will upscale the programme to make it available to all first-year international students in the years to come,” she relates.
Aside from ATLAS, is Jump Start, yet another Canadian invention, this time by the University of British Colombia (UBC) and something Anderson regards as “the most comprehensive programme of its type in Canada.” Jump Start begins with a two-week immersion programme followed by a year-long transition follow-up that fosters a home away from home for its international students.
Jump Start fosters a home away from home for its international students
Across the Pacific Ocean to Australia and we find more impressive examples of student-centric initiatives, and this time it has even reached state level. Just this month the government of Victoria opened the doors to its Study Melbourne Student Centre, open 24 hours a day and seven days a week for any queries international students might have about health, legal, accommodation and safety support. The centre is part of the government’s AUS$17.5 million five-year international education strategy.
Upon its launch, Minister for Employment and Trade Louise Asher said the government is committed to providing international students with a welcoming place where they can receive assistance.
And while Australia is famed for being a friendly and laid-back destination, one of its welcoming English language schools, Sydney English Academy (SEA), has found some students misinterpret this characteristic.
“Australians are very relaxed, smiley and friendly people. We say hello and smile at everyone we meet whether it be the bus-driver or the person you pass every day on your way to school,” SEA’s Co-Director Samantha Milton explains.
“Students from a variety of cultures have told me that smiling too much might be deemed a little crazy!”
“Students from a variety of cultures have told me that it is very different in their country; that smiling too much might be deemed a little crazy and that overuse of ‘thank you’ can sound a little sycophantic!”
Milton notes that when students take on the Aussie culture “many of them report a huge difference in the way others respond to them, and they say it completely changes their experience for the better.”
But what do the students themselves have to say amidst all of this?
“I was shocked to see old men surfing like children. It’s a beautiful life lesson for me and I’m always learning about the culture and lifestyle of this amazing country,” says Brazilian Thiago Texeira who studies at SEA.
“I was shocked to see old men surfing like children”
Texeira’s classmate Alessia Gigli from Italy has made her own observations “I think it’s strange that people in Manly sometimes don’t wear shoes in the street. In my country only homeless people do this!”
From the enormous island of Australia to the tiny but formidable Malta and international students at EC Malta are surprised at how much the country has to offer, and how fast-paced the traffic can be.
“Crossing the road is both dangerous and funny. If I don’t die here, I believe I’ll live until I’m one hundred-years-old!” exclaims 18-year-old Alexandra Katinova from Slovakia.
While the traffic may be startling, Katinova has really taken to the local people and describe the Maltese as “carefree, open and generous.”
French student Radoine Merzouki, also studying at EC Malta, agrees “at first the Maltese are strong and difficult, but as you get to know them you’ll realise just how nice and friendly they really are.”
“It’s a tiny island, but there are lots of things to do, museums to visit, and beaches to enjoy,” enthuses Merzouki.
Back in the UK I visit the London School of English and am met by a group of excitable students from Japan, Bulgaria, Italy, Brazil, Libya, France and Thailand, all jostling to tell me about their experiences with two taps for hot and cold water and how British people “drive on the wrong side of the road”.
Speaking about the changeable summer weather in Britain, Mohamed Own from Libya tells me “sometimes it catches me off guard, and I find myself getting caught in the rain, I might be wearing shorts and then I’m too cold! It’s very unpredictable!”
Hajimu Ishii from Japan also struggled with the long summer days. “When I arrived I couldn’t sleep! In the summertime here the days are really long, and I didn’t understand that at 10pm it is still daylight. Now I get used to it,” he says.
“In London they take dogs, very big dogs on the train”
Ishii tells me that he’s also surprised by the amount of dogs he’s seen on the London Underground. “In Japan, people might take a very small dog on the train but it will always be in a cage, but in London they take dogs, very big dogs on the train. I was surprised by this.”
While Thai student Joompol Tantikumnerdkul, or Ice as he likes to be called, is still trying to get used to potatoes for dinner, Rosangela Pires Bretas from Brazil has invested in a good conditioner after the water here dries out her hair, and it strikes me that all these students, no matter how small, are making constant adjustments and compromises to embrace their new lives.
“British people are so polite,” they all agree. I’m not sure I entirely concur, but considering that some of these students have taken part in the school’s “Discover London” classes where they navigate their way through bustling street markets interviewing London’s market traders, for the most part it would seem that culture shock can also be a positive journey, particularly when supported by a caring institution such as the London School of English.
Its Managing Director, Hauke Tallon says that his school has a significantly older demographic than others in the country, meaning it is important to pitch the level of support accordingly and not make the students feel like they’re being treated like children. “There are real opportunities to give them tools to help them manage their situation, rather than hold their hands through everything,” he says.
In over 11 years at the school, Tallon feels one of the most rewarding feelings is observing the students journey of personal growth. “One of the best things they take away with them is that new insight into different ways of approaching things, and different ways of dealing with situations,” he says.
Denis Baker, Director of Swiss-based educational agency Aventure Linguistique agrees. “Trite as it may sound, we really believe that culture shock is the adventure; allowing yourself to be affected, changed.”
“You can’t successfully master a language without assimilating a good part of the culture. It is possible to learn a language “from the outside”, but it’s not nearly as complete or efficient as one who dives in completely,” says Baker.
“Every time you learn a language you are human again”
Leaving us with food for thought Baker goes on to say, “there’s a proverb I like that says: “Every time you learn a language you are human again.” That pretty much sums up the approach of our agency.”
Perhaps this viewpoint can even be quantified. Market insight firm i-graduate conducted a survey this year of almost 1,800 students and 99% said their study abroad experience “broadened my perspective on life” and 97% claimed it “helped make me the person I am today.”
Let’s hope our educators, counsellors and governments of today continue pursuing new ways to provide a supportive platform for international students across the world in overcoming culture shock, and ultimately gaining from it.