Sue O’Hara, International Student Support Officer, speaks of her experience managing the weekly Intercultural Café at the University of Exeter.
I’ve been working with international students for well over 15 years now. And even though some challenges are new (pandemic anyone?), some challenges for our international student community haven’t changed: loneliness, isolation, culture shock, language barriers. Each year we would try something new to help students over these hurdles with varying success. Often the focus would be on highlighting UK culture and increasing their understanding of us. Last year I worked with a group of colleagues from Exeter and Georgetown University looking at cultural competence. I realised that I was missing an opportunity. Yes, international students want to learn about UK culture to help adapting to their new homes (albeit temporary) but really they came with a wealth of experience that I wasn’t valuing enough. And we were ignoring a bigger opportunity; one to examine our own cultural responses.
So I stole an idea (yes, I did check it was OK), and started the weekly Intercultural Café. Each one-hour session would start with a discussion topic or an activity as a springboard for conversation and increased understanding. I begged favours from colleagues across the university to lead sessions (they were brilliant). Importantly, we provided free hot drinks and pastries. At our first session we had 4 students, 7 at our second, 26 at our third. We promoted the sessions through Your International E-news, INTO and coerced academic colleagues. Word spread. We had a core of students who came each week but some drifted in and out. One student brought an elderly couple she had befriended who were world travellers. They loved being around such a young international cohort. All were welcomed with a smile and most went away more confident and more knowledgeable about themselves, the institution, the region.
But it’s not just the students who have benefitted. I have gained so much personally from meeting students face to face and building relationships, something we haven’t been able to do during the pandemic. I’ve heard stories of their experiences, their hopes, their challenges. They’ve made me laugh. I’ve been able to identify a few students who were struggling and, if they didn’t come to café, to contact them to make sure everything was OK. They’ve helped me in focus groups and surveys. We’ve felt like a community there to support each other. Over the year we have had 570 visits to the café, 216 unique student visits.
International student feedback has been very positive. Students have talked about making friends, new support networks, opening their eyes to new possibilities, increasing their confidence at the university. They overwhelmingly love the pastries!
Sarah* came with her South African and American flat mate. She was one of the few UK students who attended and became a regular. She hadn’t come from an international background but said she valued the international atmosphere and discussion, opening her eyes to her attitude to her own culture as well as how that might be perceived through another’s eyes. As a quieter student we saw her confidence grow. I’m pleased to say that I’ve just received her application to the International Welcome Team in September, welcoming new international students to campus. She probably wouldn’t have considered this as an option at the beginning of the year. Another 6 regular international student attendees have also applied to join the welcome team.
Some people I speak to are nervous about sharing their lives and their experiences with international students. They are worried about offending someone with their own ignorance, or that they don’t have time to follow up. These are valid concerns. But my experience has enriched my professional life this year. I can’t wait to set the programme for next year and I hope we have the problem of too many attendees! If you want to lead a session let me know. Or if you want to come along as an attendee to join in the fun you are more than welcome. Everyone always is.
The Intercultural Café lead by Sue O’Hara is part of a wider project with Professor Angela Christidis and Emma Sweeny who are delivering activities, funded by the Education Incubator, to explore intercultural competence, confidence and collaboration in preparing students as global citizens and looking at ways to improve the student experience of both international and home students.
To contact Sue about leading a session or to find out more, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.