International students take risks to develop a sense of belonging through English speaking practice programs.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the courage it takes to find your voice in a new language and what happens when you do. I used to live in the USA, and for several years coordinated academic support programs in a community college in the South Bronx, NY. At my institution, the majority of students, faculty and staff spoke Spanish, and I quickly understood that to connect with colleagues and students, I should speak the language of the community. So I put on my learner hat, practised on my Duolingo app as I rode the subway, and listened to people around me speak. Sure, my comprehension was ok, but could I speak up? No way! I felt intimidated, unwilling to appear foolish, make a mistake, or be misunderstood. I was trying to go it alone, but quite simply lacked the courage to fail.

“I would like to have more opportunity to speak though I would [sic] afraid”. 

Conversations student.

At HELPS, I see students looking to build the same connections in Sydney that I was in the Bronx – connections to peers, staff and faculty, connections to ideas, and for many, connections with a new country. For international students, navigating Australian social norms, questioning Sydney’s sluggish public transport system, and deciding what to buy in our weird supermarkets is all part of the daily struggle. And while working so hard to fit in, students also face the challenge of learning academic English and thinking critically in English. Suddenly international student life seems like a massive undertaking. In my case, I at least had the privilege of knowing I wouldn’t lose my job over my less-than-stellar language outcomes. But for international students, their sense of belonging, academic performance, and sometimes familial obligations are often at stake.

“I want to stress out [sic] that it is definitely very tricky to find friends as an international student, but Conversations at UTS helped me a lot”.

Conversations student.

At UTS right now, we’re talking a lot about how to best support students with different language backgrounds. I think it’s essential that we support our students to find a sense of belonging because connecting with others is key to accessing opportunities and sustaining relationships. At university we connect and share knowledge about our academic interests, professional goals and ways to navigate the “gatekeepers” that govern our institutional life. Without connection, navigating these systems can become overwhelming and sometimes isolating.

“The fact that Talkfest is able to help international students gain a sense of belonging at university is very meaningful”. 

TalkFest volunteer.
A group of International students sitting in a circle practising their English conversation skills.
Students and student volunteers at TalkFest, 2019

When supporting our students, we should remember that building connection relies on the ability to communicate effectively. For some of us, acquiring the skills to communicate effectively in an academic environment takes longer. And it will sometimes be hard, and sometimes we will fall down. But if we have somewhere safe to fall, then we might just find the courage to get back up again. 

“A safe or comfortable environment to talk in English. That’s quite important… if you make lots of mistakes and people laugh at you or they feel confused about your language — you will feel stressed or pressure at the beginning”.

Buddy Program student.

If being courageous means showing strength in the face of challenging situations, then I think our students have it in spades. I see acts of bravery every day at UTS – students who come to HELPS seeking academic skills support alongside their peers, and students who show up to practise speaking and make friends in the Buddy Program and TalkFest. Students who attend Conversations or a U:PASS class are acting bravely simply by walking through the door to face the challenges of the day’s topic.

I’ve been at UTS six short months but it feels like home now. There is a sense of community here that I never expected to find at a large urban university. Students are entitled to share in that community and I think the key to that is to give them the space to connect and be brave.  

“It offers me an opportunity to connect to the university. Also, I made friends in Conversations@UTS”.

Conversations student.

Everyone can encourage students to find their voice, connect and be brave. Here are three things to think about:

  • Acknowledge students’ discomforts of living and studying overseas
  • Applaud students for taking risks to develop their language
  • Inform students about English speaking practice programs (Buddy Program, Conversations, TalkFest), U:PASS classes on offer, and UTS clubs and societies. 

Kaitlin Moore is a HELPS Admin Coordinator & postgraduate student in FASS.

Feature image by Chang Duong.

  • I loved reading your article Kaitlin! And I think your three final points are spot on. It can be scary to ask for help. One thing tutors can do as a class activity is to get students to go to HELPS in a small group and find out what HELPS offers that might help them – and then report back. I’ve tried this and it made a difference for students who were at first a bit hesitant to ask for help, or simple didn’t know that it existed.

  • Love this article. UTS:HELPS does “encourage students to find their voice, connect and be brave”. This is the core of what they do and I really love being a part of it!

  • love the article. I couldn’t agree with you more when you said, “if we have somewhere safe to fall, then we might just find the courage to get back up again.”

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