We tend to assume that having a higher proportion of international students is a good thing – in fact, that’s one of the measurements used by the QS World University Rankings to assess how ‘internationalized’ a university is.
In many cases, a higher proportion of international students does in fact translate into a more exciting, multicultural experience – both within the classroom and beyond. But as a number of experts and academics have pointed out, this may not always be the case.
So how can you ensure that a university’s high ratio of international students will really mean a more ‘international’ learning environment, in the best possible way?
1. Talk to some international students
One of the most obvious and effective ways of getting behind the numbers is to talk to some current international students, and find out whether their experiences match up to what you’re expecting.
Many universities today have student ambassadors, whose role is exactly this – you may be able to contact them directly through the university website, or via the international student office or the student union.
You could also contact leaders of international student clubs and societies – who again, you should be able to find through the website or perhaps via a Facebook group.
A good policy here would be to speak to as many different students as you can – remember everyone’s experience will be different, so try and get a good spread of perspectives before making up your own mind.
2. Check out the social calendar
If you haven’t already during stage one, check out the list of student clubs and societies, and calendar of annual events – both should be available via the university website (again, if you’re stuck, ask university support staff to point you in the right direction).
This should give you a feel for how diverse the social life at the university really is. By this, I don’t just mean checking whether there’s an ‘Asian students society’ or a ‘Spanish-speaking student club’ – but also more subtle signs that the university’s multicultural intake has genuinely influenced the range of leisure activities on offer.
For example, there might be university-wide celebrations of different cultures’ major festivals. There could be opportunities to learn and share sports and hobbies from all corners of the world – from capoeira to crochet and manga to Morris dancing (hey, each to their own).
3. Get a feel for the international student support services
By this stage, you may have already had some contact with the university’s international student support staff – and had a chance to get some idea of how supportive they really are!
If not, get back on the university website and track them down. They may even have their own section of the site, detailing the range of services they provide.
Maybe they organize special events and workshops, offer language-learning support services, or run mentoring or host-family schemes. Most universities also run a special induction program for new international students, to help them get orientated and settle in.
4. See how international the faculty is
As well as checking how many international students the university has, you could also see how internationally diverse the staff members are. This is another of the measurements used in the QS World University Rankings to assess ‘internationalization’ (the ‘IF’ score given to each university).
You can ask students about this, and again check the website – if international diversity is something the university has been especially successful in achieving, then it will probably boast about this somewhere the site!
And of course you can also browse through the staff in different departments – often a brief biography is given for each faculty member, so you can get a quick idea of where they come from.
5. Look at the course content
Finally, you might want to try and find out whether the university’s claims to be ‘international’ are really reflected in the learning experiences it offers.
You might find some clues here in the course content – though this will probably be more obvious in some subjects than others. For instance, if you’re studying literature, politics, geography, sociology (or any other arts, humanities or social science subject), are there opportunities to specialize in a range of different cultures and societies?
As well as looking for cultural diversity in the content offered, you could also check whether any exchange programs or partnerships are in place. Are there opportunities to spend time in another country, or to collaborate on projects with those in another nation?
So, lots of research to do, but (yes, I know I always say this), worth it to make sure you get the study-abroad experience you really want.
And of course, it’s also worth remembering that the quality of your experience will also be largely down to you (see ‘Five ways to sabotage your own study-abroad experience’).