Starting university or college is a huge learning curve for everyone. Some students are adjusting to living the post-secondary lifestyle while commuting to school and living at home with their parents; some are just getting settled into their new dorm rooms; and some have traveled great distances to attend school. Everyone is just a little bit unsure about how to manage the year ahead. But, regardless of the kinds of adjustments you find yourself making as you begin your post-secondary journey, you need to remember that others are experiencing new things as well. For instance, international students who have just left their home countries to study abroad might have even bigger adjustments to make than you do. If everyone tries to help each other out, things will go much more smoothly for the whole group. So what can you do to help the international students you meet during your studies?
Tip #1: Offer Assistance
To some international students, even the simplest activities can seem overwhelming. Not knowing or understanding social and cultural norms—or even conventions that might seem incredibly natural to others, like meeting with a professor during office hours or hanging out in the student lounge—can be overwhelming and even embarrassing. Depending on their proficiency in English and their exposure to North American culture, international students might avoid many activities that would ultimately prove helpful or enjoyable to them simply because they’re anxious about participating in these activities.
As a person who is familiar with your own country’s cultural norms, you can be a great help to international students in these types of situations. All it takes is a friendly inquiry to see if there is anything you can do to help a foreign classmate who is struggling. If you can clearly see that someone is having a hard time, offer to help. Be a real Canadian about it: be nice. Remember that a small and simple act of courtesy on your part might make a huge difference to someone else.
Tip #2: Be Patient
If you are having a conversation with an international student whose first language isn’t English, you might have to speak a bit more slowly than you’re used to. You both might have a hard time understanding each other’s accents, and it might take the person you’re speaking to some extra time to plan sentences before saying them.
The fact that language barriers can be frustrating is no excuse for avoiding them. This goes for international and native students alike. International students should make a point of talking to native speakers to improve their speaking and listening skills, and native speakers should engage in these conversations just as they would with any other conversation. You should also keep in mind that people who are learning a second language often have better listening than speaking skills. This means that, while international students might need a moment to organize their response to your question, they very likely did understand the question. Being patient and making friends with international students is well worth it, as you’ll likely learn as much from them as they will from you.
Tip #3: Be Willing to Learn
Depending on where you come from and what experiences you’ve had, your time at university might be your first real exposure to different cultures, and that in itself can be intimidating. Remember that university is not the time to stick to your comfort zone—you’re there to learn, after all! Becoming friends with international students means that you get to teach each other about your respective cultures. Even if you haven’t traveled to another country to study, you can still learn about and appreciate them. Be open to learning about your new friends’ families, religious beliefs, favorite foods, and languages. They get to learn about your life; you get to learn about their lives. This will help you appreciate each other on both a personal and cultural level. Of course, this will work out only if you’re willing not just to teach others about your own culture but to learn about theirs in return.
Tip #4: Be Inclusive
Making friends during university can be a bit of a process. When you start school, you’ll likely find yourself hanging out with large groups of people. This will be especially true if you are living in a dorm. Over time, that group will probably either dissolve or break into smaller subgroups. This is completely normal, as it takes some time for everyone to figure out whom they get along with best and whom they would like to be friends with.
Unfortunately, international students are sometimes left out of these large groups, and as such, they never get to establish themselves within the smaller subgroups. The solution here is simple: be sure to invite the international students from your residence to take part in the large group’s activities. Invite them to parties, outings, or even just casual hangouts that don’t really require invitations. Though not all students will accept your offers, they most certainly can’t accept them if they’re never extended. Make it a point to make international students feel welcome, as many of them will likely feel isolated from you and from other students if you don’t.
Tip #5: Don’t Laugh—Literally
Just like everyone else, international students are bound to make mistakes from time to time. They might do something that is socially unusual; they might use an English phrase incorrectly. Perhaps they might do or say something else that seems funny. No matter how funny these mistakes might seem to you, remember that they can be terribly embarrassing for the people making them. Instead of laughing at international students for the mistakes they make, then, try to help them avoid making the same mistakes in the future. If you end up being friends with an international student for a long time, you might be able to bring up this mistake at a point when the other person will also find it funny. Until such a time arrives, be nice—don’t laugh!
Helping international students feel welcome is really quite simple: be nice, and treat others the way you would want to be treated. There’s no reason for our differences to divide us; indeed, if we want them to, they can work to bring us together.