As a veteran of two intercontinental exchanges and one semi-permanent move to Sweden to pursue my master’s degree, I’ve lived and breathed the international student experience. Skipping class, living in a foreign country, the international social life, pubs, clubs and travelling – you almost forget that suddenly you’re a student under the umbrella of a foreign university institution, and that a lot about your experience and life abroad is affected by that organisation.
Lately, I’ve witnessed young adults only a couple years younger than myself with no international experience getting thrown into the wilderness of coping, adapting and living the less glorified parts of the international student life.
Your time on exchange can very well turn out to be the time during which you learn about exclusion, being the constant outsider, and having your identity turned upside down. You’re on your own for the first time in a foreign land, forced to make a life from scratch, and this is overwhelming. That’s without even touching on cultural and language barriers.
The thing most students don’t realize until they arrive is that a lot depends on the university and the culture of inclusion and support it can build for internationals. Unfortunately, it’s no secret that universities have difficulties integrating us in a meaningful way. Ignore the beautiful smiling students on their brochures; the isolation of internationals is widespread and unmistakable.
The struggle tends to be threefold: institutional, linguistic and cultural. How do you integrate a transient, diverse and temporary number of individuals into a university on a rolling basis?
First, universities need to realize that it is in their interest to invest in international students. Universities around the world are experiencing an increase in student mobility, whether through temporary exchange programs or more permanent students seeking their entire degree in a different country. This student mobility is an opportunity to bring in revenue and compensate, in part, for austerity policies targeting education. Universities must prepare themselves to hear and react to international student needs, and adjust regulations and institutional culture to remain competitive.
Sweden is an interesting case. For one thing, an astounding number of Swedes speak impeccable English. As an Anglophone in a world where English is such a widely-spoken language, you’d think this lead easy and swift integration into Swedish student life. Master’s level classes may very well be in English, but when it comes to student rights, all documentation in the public sector in Sweden – which includes universities – must be in Swedish. Student unions have independently decided to conduct meetings in English if there’s just one non-Swede there (and there almost always is). But, when working with the administration, translated documents are rare, if they exist at all, limiting international student involvement and representation.
The cultural element is trickier, but it’s not impossible to manage. Setting up an international information desk or club, however, doesn’t cut it. These are often young people leaving their home for an extended period of time for the first time without a support system. But, more and more, students travel, experience other cultures, and come to understand the sense of being an outsider. This can have an impact on cultural integration on campus.
From my years in the international student community, I realized that it’s a culture in itself, and it’s spreading with every exchange, international degree or internship, new group of friends, and – often – new job. More and more young people recognize and identify with an “international culture.” The spread of international experiences is expected to continue, and with it, I hope this international culture will, too.
As much as global interconnectivity and exchange is facilitated by globalization and other factors, there remain, for students studying abroad, shadows of isolation and exclusion. Young internationals under the wing of a new university deserve support from their host institution. There’s nothing to be done about some negative aspects of living away from home, but if trends continue, universities will have to face facts: they have a role to play in making life easier for international students.