Find out what support services you can expect from your university as an international student and make the most of your time studying abroad.
Studying abroad is likely to be an exciting, enriching and fulfilling experience. But initially at least, it may also feel daunting and at times overwhelming.
New international students have to adapt to a new place, new culture and perhaps a new language, all at the same time.
Most universities (certainly those with large numbers of international students) however, have well developed support systems in place for international students.
These are designed to make the study-abroad experience as easy and enjoyable as possible, from application all the way through to graduation.
Many universities have a welcome pack or guide specifically designed for international students. This may be available online, or sent by mail once you’ve been offered a place, and should contain useful information about preparing for studying abroad and what to expect when you arrive.
This guide may cover topics such as accommodation options, arranging medical insurance, tuition fee payments, visa requirements, budgeting for living expenses, part-time work and advice on what to bring with you.
There should also be information about the university and how things work there, including important online resources, administrative departments and campus facilities – so that it’s all a bit less unknown when you arrive.
Of course, there’s more to preparing for studying abroad than just filling out a visa application and applying for a place in student halls. You may have questions or concerns about other aspects of student life, or just feel nervous about not knowing anyone when you get there.
To fill these gaps, growing numbers of universities are introducing student mentoring schemes that start before arrival. This means future students are matched up with current students, who then communicate, usually via email, in the months leading up to the start of the course.
The idea is to ensure that international students feel welcomed into the student community before they even arrive, and know that there will be at least one friendly face waiting to greet them.
The first few weeks of being an international student are likely to be the most obviously overwhelming. There’s so much to take in, so many new places and people, and it can take a while to find your feet.
It’s typical for universities to invite international students to arrive a few days earlier than the rest of the student body, to give them a chance to get settled and acclimatized before the chaos really begins!
This time is usually filled with an international student orientation program, designed to provide practical support and information, and also to encourage international students to get to know one another.
Emily Lim, internationalization officer at the University of Warwick, UK, says, “Arriving in a new place, let alone a new country, can be a daunting prospect. At Warwick, we take great care to ensure students’ smooth arrival and to help them to settle into their new way of life within the university and local community.”
Common elements of international student orientation programs include being picked up from the airport, tours of the campus and local area, social events and activities, and introductory lectures and talks.
Warwick’s international orientation program lasts for four days and Lim says that past participants report a mixture of practical and social benefits.
These include finding out about support services and student clubs, getting used to the UK system of teaching and learning, and also laying the foundations of friendships that may last a lifetime.
Similar events take part in other universities around the world. For instance the orientation program at the University of Canberra, Australia, includes a boat-and-bus tour, a team race around campus, a football tournament and an introduction to Australian slang.
At King’s College London, UK, orientation events include a series of practical workshops.
These cover topics such as working in the UK, opening a UK bank account, accessing the National Health Service (NHS), finding accommodation, and travelling within London and beyond.
There’s also a more light-hearted workshop on the subject of culture shock, which addresses some of the differences in language and lifestyle that students may encounter, including different social norms, values and expectations.
If parents and other family members of international students are able to attend, they may also be invited to join in with orientation activities.
At Singapore Management University (SMU), in Singapore, family members can go on a campus tour led by current students, and even experience a mock-lecture, designed to give an impression of the daily student experience.
Of course, the first few days are not the only time international students need support.
Marcey Abramovitz, international student support coordinator at New Zealand’s University of Otago, says, “It is not only vital that students are promptly given a framework of information on the institution and the surrounding area, but they should also be made aware of the support network they can rely on should any issues arise during the course of their stay.”
She adds, “In some cases, just knowing that this support network is there if they need it can be help enough.” At the University of Otago, as at many universities, the first point of call for international students needing help is the team of international student advisers.
These are members of staff available by email, phone or in person to help international students resolve any problems that come up – either themselves, or by directing the student to the most relevant person.
Having this dedicated team is important, Abramovitz says, because it means international students can always feel confident about where to start if they have a problem, rather than wasting time trying to figure out how or where to get the help they need.
The most common problems addressed by international student advisers at Otago include homesickness, culture shock, language difficulties, unfamiliar academic or grading systems, immigration, insurance and health problems.
The university’s international student advisers have the experience and skills needed to deal with the practical aspects of these issues – but also the emotional side of things.
Most of them have experienced living, studying or working abroad themselves, which Abramovitz says can help them to empathize with how students are feeling.
As well as support from staff and other students, there’s also a third option: members of the local community. This type of support is available for international students at Singapore Management University, through a ‘host family’ program.
This scheme matches up international students with local families. The ‘host’ family offer friendship and hospitality (rather than ‘hosting’ in the sense of providing accommodation). For example, they might invite the students to their home for meals, or show them around the local area.
The idea is to promote cultural exchange, and help international students feel more fully immersed in and welcomed into the surrounding community.
Not all support services are about fixing problems; many simply aim to ensure all students enjoy their time at university, and have a fulfilling experience.
University calendars are packed with events aimed at or organized by international students. Some are specifically intended to promote cultural exchange, and others are just for fun.
At the University of Oslo, Norway, regular activities organized for international students include film evenings, visits to local attractions, guest speakers, hiking expeditions and a weekly ‘international coffee hour’, where students get together over a hot drink, biscuits and conversation.
Similarly, University of Western Ontario in Canada holds a weekly ‘global cafe’ event, in which international and domestic students are invited to enjoy tea, coffee and cookies – a good opportunity to meet new people and build connections.
Universität Hamburg, Germany, goes one better than this; as well as offering refreshments, its weekly ‘intercultural evenings’ also host performances and talks, while still preserving a relaxed environment.
Of course, there are plenty of other social events that are not specifically targeted at international students – and intercultural exchange is certainly not restricted to specified events.
One of the great things about university life is the sheer range of activities and organizations you can get involved with; there really should be something for everyone.