As a new academic year begins, we expect plenty of new faces in our classes, from first-year students navigating uni for the first time, to experienced students returning after the summer break. These new faces will also include students from overseas, who started returning to Australia in larger numbers since borders re-opened more than a year ago. As the year unfolds, more are expected from countries like China, where students are responding to changes in policy and returning to study in-person.

Whilst every student has their own personal learning journey and challenges, international students can experience a 360-degree culture shock, with an unfamiliar country, city, language, food, climate, and different educational norms to adjust to. Here’s a quick reminder of how some international students experience this transition, and how you can help them settle in as part of your classes and the broader UTS community.

Hard landings and emotional arrivals

I was kind of scared because it was a new country for me. I had thoughts going on like “how will I speak to people?” and “how will I actually interact with people?”… “how will I actually manage to be in the community over here and study?”… so I had that – all the fears going on.  

Luna, Nepal (Bachelor of Nursing)

The first days and weeks can be among the hardest for students coming from overseas. Even with the best-laid plans, the transition to studying in another country can be sudden, even shocking. Visa delays or unexpected travel issues can mean arriving and having to start classes before you’ve settled in accommodation or figured out the public transport system.

Whilst some students may have family or friends here, many more are alone for the first time, learning to manage their money, schedule and self-care needs without their usual home support. Against this backdrop, they must navigate university systems and processes which can confuse the most confident local student – never mind one who is learning in their second or even third language!

The challenge of the unfamiliar

It was hard for me initially because the curriculum back in our home countries and over here is different, so you get a whole different approach of how to do things…

Anisha, India (Master of Marketing)

Sights, sounds, food, language, cultural norms and unspoken rules – coming to a new country offers wonderful and exciting experiences, but can also create disorientation and feel overwhelmingly unfamiliar. Students may have experienced different education systems with different values and ways of learning, so even in the relative ‘safety’ of a university community, they may be worried about asking questions or being called on by the teacher, or surprised by energetic debate in a class discussion.

Assignment formats, academic integrity processes, teacher feedback and many other aspects of learning and teaching we take for granted may be completely new experiences for a student who has come through a different education system. Stopping to explain, check understanding, or invite questions can make a real difference to student success in their first assignments and classroom experiences.

Building belonging and community

I do remember a big welcome for international students, where they would just basically tell you about what it’s like in Sydney and give you the chance to meet with the other international students. Some of my friends now, I actually met them on that day and we’ve been really good friends ever since then. 

Arla, Philippines (Master of Public Health)

Social life and student community can be just as important as academic progress, especially for students who have little or no support from family and friends locally. Networking events are helpful, but can be challenging for students who are shy or lack confidence in communication. Some may find new friends in university clubs and societies, whilst others will look to their classmates and teachers for connection and support.

A growing collection of resources and shared practice from experienced teaching staff at UTS includes practical examples and suggestions for building belonging with diverse students. From welcome videos and icebreaker exercises to deeper concepts like ‘intentionally equitable hospitality’ and ‘radical inclusion’, there’s something new to consider for even the most seasoned educator.

Further reading and resources

Keen to meet some of the UTS International students behind the quotes above? Watch this short ‘Ask Anything’ video [5’03”] where you can hear them share their experiences starting their studies, and their advice to other students.

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