Going Global: Presentations of international student voices and the promotion of intercultural …



A critical element in the successful internationalisation of any organisation is the level of intercultural understanding, and universities are increasingly called upon to develop such qualities among staff and students. This paper explores some of the limitations and challenges that universities face in developing successful intercultural engagement. It also describes a simple intervention designed to create a safe platform for international students to share experiences, with each other and with academics, about issues of identity, learning and teaching, and the academic and social challenges of transition. The processes that produced the presentations were useful to the participants and have been used to bring together the experiences of home and international students, contributing intercultural understanding to training activities for various student and staff projects, in a UK university.

“They let me know about the place they live in, their values, and their life style. I hope one day I could travel to their cities, I hope one day we could still have the opportunity to meet each other.” Chinese Student


Internationalisation is a key part of the student experience for hundreds of thousands of students, mainly from India and China, who are choosing to study in universities in the UK, USA, Australia, Germany and Japan. Around 240,000 international students (i.e., students who study in a different country from the one in which they were born and have studied previously) enrolled at UK HEIs in 2006–07 (HESA, 2006/07), and more than twice this number in the USA. The experience can develop students’ intercultural competence and language skills; qualities much valued by employers (Fielden, 2007) but often underdeveloped among home students (Rammell, 2006). Interest in study abroad is low in countries with the highest levels of inward recruitment. (HEFCE, 2004).

University environments, world wide, seem to face a difficult challenge in meeting the expectations of international students who claim, among their ambitions, a desire to make friends with home students. Meanwhile, the rich potential for cross-cultural and linguistic learning, which would enhance the employability of the home students, appears to remain untapped. Isolation of students of different nationalities is commonly reported ( Hodges, 2007; Middlehurst and Woodfield, 2006) and the graduate qualities associated with internationalisation that are regarded as so important for a rapidly changing world are often neglected in either the formal or informal elements of the student experience.

Internationalisation: the changing context

Internationalisation depends on the capacity of individuals to engage with and develop their acceptance and understanding of other cultures and the ability to connect with people who are different from themselves. International students are no more homogenous as a group than any other ‘groups’ who now make up an increasingly diverse student population. Such diversity poses a powerful challenge to higher education, and interest in internationalisation has moved from suggesting support for practitioners, (Carroll and Ryan, 2006,) to a strategic level (Jones and Brown, 2007; Caruana and Spurling, 2007).

Internationalisation has also been loaded with a wider agenda. Politicians (Rammell, 2006) and world leaders have begun to acknowledge that the solutions to many current changes and strategic challenges require global agreement. Intercultural skills development and international citizenship are regarded as essential, not only to future employability, but also to harmony within multicultural communities. Modood (2005) notes that the growing plurality of cultures in British society demands that more people function comfortably in multicultural contexts. This is especially true when multicultural traditions are criticised as barriers to building a unified society (Phillips, 2005). The management of cultural divisions within societies and the world can be seen as problems of equal significance to climate change. In such rapidly changing political and economic contexts, there can be no doubt that governments will expect universities to deliver intercultural skills that will enable future generations to meet the unpredictable demands of ‘global citizenship’ and employment.

Faced with the sheer size and complexity of such aspirational demands, and the cost of internationalising, universities may be reluctant to internationalise curricula. Nevertheless, there is evidence that a good student experience is an international experience (Leask, 2001; De Vita, 2006; Carroll and Ryan, 2006), and that international students bring to universities the potential benefit of cultural enrichment; a face-to-face experience of global culture. Educators can be encouraged now that their business planners seek to maintain competitive advantage in an expanding market, and recognise the potential risks of neglecting the nature and quality of the international student experience, that the needs of the growing numbers of international students within universities will be attended to. Failure to respond to their desire for more inclusion may damage reputations and recruitment. Governments too have joined the demand for internationalisation in higher education, to enhance employability, productivity and social order, etc.

Whatever the many ethical concerns that can be raised about the endeavours to recruit international students (Killick, 2007; De Vita and Case, 2003), market forces have begun to place student-centred education centre stage. The call for intercultural learning to develop sophisticated responses to the multiple realities of modern cultural life has been voiced by a generation of teachers of languages and internationalists. De Vita and Case (2003), Koutsantoni (2006), Caruana and Oakey (2004) and Phipps and Gonzalez (2004) have, among others, ably demonstrated that internationalism is an opportunity to develop inclusivity and raise questions about the issues of inequity that are evident in relation to recruitment, sustainability, epistemology and social relationships in their institutions and in the ever widening context in which they operate. Volet (2003) suggests that the application of critical reflection in a multicultural context should be a core objective in university education, actualised through the use of learning tasks that require sensitivity to others and opportunities for social debate. It may be a happy coincidence that a good student experience is now recognised as good business in education, not only because it meets current political and economic targets, but also because ‘word of mouth’ from students is acknowledged as one of the most powerful marketing tools, especially internationally. Staff and student mobility and the development of cultural awareness are given priority, but discourse about internationalising the curriculum may now have an opportunity to begin to develop beyond the provision of support to help students adapt to western styles of teaching and assessment.

This paper describes a small-action research project which began as an investigation into international students’ experiences of transition from one academic culture to another. Participants had the opportunity to share recent experiences with educators by speaking at an academic conference. The students were empowered by the experience; by using the recordings of the students, the students became on-screen advisers to others. Further developments led to the use of student recordings to generate cross-cultural learning opportunities for home students and staff. Through live and subsequently through recorded transmission, a safe and effective platform for international students’ voices was created. The impact on students, and their audiences, suggests that simple activities can be an effective starting point for promoting intercultural understanding in a way that generates social engagement, interconnection and cultural exchange critical to successful internationalisation in universities.

Capturing Student Voices

[Students quoted are identified by the first letter of their country of origin]

In the summer of 2006, I was asked to provide a student panel for an education conference, the 6th World Conference of The International Consortium of Educational Developers (ICED). As an Education Adviser I am in daily contact with international students who comprise 10% of the student body at my university. Eight questions about their experience of learning were sent in a mail message to all international students:

Questions from the e-mail questionnaire

  • How were you taught and assessed in your previous course?
  • What did you expect your learning experience in the UK to be like?
  • Was this different from your expectations and if so how?
  • Did this create any problems or difficulties for you—and if yes, what were they?
  • What did you do to help you overcome these difficulties (i.e., did you approach any of the support services)?
  • What was the biggest surprise for you as a student in the UK?
  • If the University could do one thing to improve the learning experience of international students, what would it be?
  • What advice would you give to a student from your country who is planning to study in the UK?

From 20 replies, 9 students were selected; reflecting, as much as possible, the nationalities of the conference delegates, a mix of genders and disciplines. Students were invited to take part in an interview; in person, separately and in groups and this, together with their photos and online answers became a profile document. The interviews were occasions to extend responses and identify key issues for presentation. During these sessions students discussed their role in the conference presentation and agreed to be filmed, photographed and to appear in print. The prospect of the students simply appearing and submitting to questions seemed to have potential to be a daunting or unfair experience for the students, especially for those less confident and skilled in English speaking.


Course Gender Age Country of Origin First language Other languages:(all have at least 6.5 IELTS)
PG M 24 Finland Finnish English
PG M 24 Malaysia Chinese Malaysian, English
PG F 23 Zambia English
PG M 22 India English, Guajarati, Hindi
PG M 23 India English, Telagu, Hindi
PG F 22 China Mandarin English
UG F 21 Spain Spanish English
UG F 23 Denmark Danish English ,German, Spanish,

Swedish & Norwegian

PG F 23 China Mandarin English, Cantonese

Table 1: Demographic Details of Student Participants

The preceding informal discussions brought together a group of international students who, (with one exception) did not know each other previously. The process of working together enhanced their understanding of each other:

‘Some students find it difficult to openly speak about their difficulties in lectures and seminars with lots of other students’ (F)

and the learning outcomes which were related to their courses:

It’s funny now doing this help me understand about critical thinking. You hope what we say will make teachers think about how we feel and make it better for new students coming here’ (C).

The Presentation

To ensure each student would have something to say and to prevent one or two personalities from dominating the session, each student identified one statement that reflected a unique comment they had each made (Figure 2). These became ‘headlines’, which identified the key issues that evolved from discussions; there are few surprises among them for anyone who has worked with international students. Students were asked to reflect on what they would like to arise from the session and what they would expect educationists to do. The session began with the students presenting themselves, with their statements placed on a large placard and used rather like a Brechtian epic theatre device.

 ‘Here plagiarism is the main thing.’ (M)
 ‘I never used computers for coursework at all!!’ (Z)
 ‘I had difficulties to speak in front of the teacher, but it is changing little by little.’ (C)
 ‘I never had group work and coursework is completely new to me.’ (I)
 ‘When I was doing the first group work with my classmates last semester, I found I had nothing to say…Now I can be analytical.’ (C)
 ‘Some feedback on my early assignments would have been really helpful.’ (I)
 ‘Some procedures were very formal and rigorous.’ (F)
‘Very low expectations from tutors to students…it can be hard to find the lectures interesting when the level follows the expectations.’ (D)

Figure 2

As I understand it, Brecht’s theatrical vision (Willet, 1964) was to use the ‘alienation effect’ to encourage audiences to think rationally, rather than feel emotions. Using this theatrical device meant the students immediately gained attention but also an ‘active res.’; a meta-cognitive response; of empathy and identification. These were not players but real people, and the audience was free to make sense of their words and engage with their experience of higher education cultures and practices as outsiders. The performance element invited the audience to transform reality, or at least identify with someone else’s and reflect on the implementation of change.

Using student voices: empowerment, transformations and transmission

Audiences asked about how the students had managed difference, integration and transition and how they had responded to different demands. The most common response was surprise about the cultural specificity of academic practice, especially in writing. Others commented on the wide variation in experience and expectation, including use of IT in learning. Overall there seemed to be recognition that greater diversity requires more thought, closer management and more flexibility from teachers. Tutors regularly raise the alarm about international students and plagiarism but here students can explain their experience of referencing, the differences they found in classroom and online experiences, assessment and relationships with tutors and other students, which varied widely:

‘I know we are expected to work independently…I don’t have the information I need to know how right the answer is. The handbooks are not helpful as many of the terms and definitions do not mean anything to me. I needed the lecturers to explain what the learning outcomes mean and to go through the handbook. It is good to learn something new; that’s the whole point. Course work seems to be a good way of evaluating your skills’ (I).

The need for clarity about accessing support was underlined when only two of the group used additional study support while others sought help from classmates or occasionally tutors:

‘I didn’t take help of any support services, I thought the support classes were not for Masters Students or they were about exams, and I knew how to do those’ (I).

While such variation is perhaps similar for home students, there were issues and pressures to do with identity and motivation that do result from cultural differences or perceptions of these:

‘UK students want to work first, earn some money. They are more confident, but don’t like to study so much. I think we want to work hard and complete all of our studies before we start to work. We wait to earn our money, even to PhD if we can. Learn first, and then start work when we know everything’ (M).

‘My mother told me there was no need to worry about diminishing my own culture by opening myself up to another. I can learn about other ways of life without losing my beliefs. Although this will make me different, I shall always be the same with my family’ (M).

What began as exploratory research for a specific purpose became a resource that highlighted many aspects of the differences international students often experience when moving between academic cultures. There are clearly serious questions about the validity of this approach; a small sample of self-selected students was further selected and styled to ‘represent’ the student body. Their diversity was limited, the students were not anonymous and the whole activity was designed to influence practice, but what emerged was more telling about the international student voice than about research methods.

Students revealed that they had little contact with the voices of UK students and that finding their own voice is often as much about changing cultural norms as about speaking another language. When dealing with the unfamiliar, people often struggle on independently and slowly, rarely seeking help, reinforcing a cycle of difference and isolation. Taking part in this activity connected this group of students to staff in the University and to each other. The process enhanced mutual understanding of all who engaged, quickly and in a simple but profound way. Impact on the students themselves was very positive:

‘The presentation conference was an amazing experience and I not only enjoyed it at that moment, but I rejoice its memories even today. Speaking in front of such a big population was not a routine job for me, so it also opened me up to an extent’ (I).

The participants’ perspectives on their own comments developed through discussion and were included in the presentations. The students became more self aware through a form of cultural feedback:

‘This has been interesting for me to learn about other students’ experiences and how teachers don’t know much about other countries’ (I).

The project generated some film and documentation and it seemed there was the potential to use these resources further both with international students and to promote intercultural understanding between home and international students. Recorded resources are valuable; quality and content are predictable and in DVD format, sections can be selected and tailored to the interests of different groups. Editing can show students only at their best, reducing the need for shyness or embarrassment. There is something particularly appealing to students about becoming and making a screen image in a visual culture. In these days of the C generation, technology can be used for more than just successful marketing (Gilligan, 2007). Students on film, pod casts, interactive forums and blogs have a variety of uses: supporting cultural adjustment; giving advice to new students on managing studies and for training purposes. Staff learn much from listening to students, and students often listen more closely to the voices of other students. The UKCISA training video Bridging the Gap (Barty and Lago, 2008), is another excellent example of a similar resource.

International student voices and intercultural learning

It is recognised that intervention is necessary to create opportunities for students and staff to develop intercultural awareness and understanding (Volet and Smart, 1998; De Vita, 2005) and Sheffield Hallam University has, like many others, developed a number of different strategies to create opportunities for intercultural learning.

Projects based around language learning that have been most successful include a Tandem project (where participants select a partner with whom to gain language skills while sharing their native language) that has run successfully for many years and, more recently, the English Conversation Club and Language Exchanges have been run by the Students’ Union, which also organises volunteering, popular with international students. Recently launched, a Local Friends project encourages staff and students to host international students. There are also curriculum-based projects, where home students work with, or for, international students. Examples include International Week, managing events and celebrations and comparative education modules.

Mentoring scheme

The University has developed projects to support new international students’ transitions, including an online mentoring scheme that allows prospective students to choose a student mentor based on their profile, interrogate them online and later in informal meetings in orientations at institution and course level. Mentoring and coaching are commonly used where rapid development is needed, to support specific groups and those taking on a new role (Tabbron et al., 1997). The student perspective is clearly valued by newly arrived students and the student experience is much better presented by students themselves. It is very easy to see the potential to use student voices in the training programmes for mentors. In any situation where students and staff are preparing for cross-cultural engagement, training is often critical to success. The main problems that arise in these projects arise when there are misunderstandings, particularly around expectations and objectives. Discussions often reveal surprises about differences and the difficulties of dislocation, and home students can share their experiences of other cultures. Training exercises are designed to encourage students to clarify and reflect on their own cultural identity and experiences of transition; drawing on this to inform their role as mentors, representatives or fellow students. Home students have begun to volunteer to become mentors and there has been a campaign to recruit them. International student voices, recorded on film, in text and then in person are used as part of mentor training and, where appropriate, with other staff and student training, including Senior Residents, Student Ambassadors, and the Students’ Union executive.

International students were asked to volunteer and produce films about the surprises and challenges they had experienced. By engaging in the making, directing and editing of the films, students gained skills in team and project management, budgeting and communications as well as all the practical skills involved in production. Working with Student Support Staff they were encouraged to reflect on and share their experiences with new students, enabling them in turn to develop confidence to take control of their new situation. For the participants themselves, the value of this activity can be to enhance their own reflexivity and autonomous learning (Fazey and Fazey, 2001), and discuss the need to structure the learning environment of new students. This view underpins the university’s learning-support strategy. Here, the student experience becomes both a testimony and a benchmark for what students can achieve. Extracts of their films have been included on websites and in online learning-support materials designed to introduce international students to Western approaches to learning and assessment. Their voices provide insight into their experiences of arrival, adjustment and many aspects of living and studying at university and have met with a positive response from participants in several training programmes.

Intercultural Impact

Participants provide feedback on the training sessions and can gain a University award along with their degree if they produce a log of their work with international students as mentors, in projects and student societies. For some students it may be part of an assessed course activity. Their accounts reveal that many students see scope for their personal development and feel they have benefited from widening their horizons and gaining understanding and insight into the lives of others. This feedback demonstrates the potential to enhance intercultural engagement. As well as commenting on their training and the impact of taking part in various projects, students shared their observations and perceptions of international students before the training took place.

Many home students admitted limited experience of relationships with students from outside the UK. Some had studied with a few international students on course, or where this was not the case, had met them socially, through other friends, as housemates, or through a shared interest or activity such as a sport.

The students were volunteers, so it was perhaps unsurprising that at least half of the students felt strongly that it was important not to stereotype international students, to have regard for their individuality, and not to make assumptions about students’ behaviours. Students who have positive experiences of relationships with international students are often confident and outgoing or studying disciplines where there is an international dimension or a language element. Among students recently returned from a year working or studying abroad, there is often a sense of empathy for international students based on this personal experience. However, few of the students had been outside of Europe and a few were less able to relate to a wider global context.

In early training sessions there was a clear tendency to see international students, not as individuals but in groups, since their experience lacked personal contact, often talking about Chinese and Asian students. Generalisations and inaccurate stereotypes appear to influence the perceptions of international students as much as home students. It seems that despite the volume of information available about life in other countries, many assumptions are made that owe more to out-of-date misconceptions and fictional representations. It is evident from working with many groups of international students and staff that many European students have archaic notions about English life and culture. Seeing individual students speaking on screen provided a basis for identifying individuals referred to in subsequent discussions by name or nationality. The student voices, in the form of on-screen presentations of international students, helped provoke recollections of international students with whom home students had had some personal contact and a desire to empathise and recognise similarities with their own experiences, to, ’make it real’. Another student remarked, ‘…[it] reminded me what it was like when I was in Spain for a year’. Another said, ‘[It] Brought home all those little things you take for granted or never notice’. It seems that misconceptions of one another will only be challenged by the power of personal contact, engagement and a relationship:

I had so many wrong assumptions about what I used to call “foreigners”—I cringe when I think what weird ideas I used to have, you know and how much I have learned from my relationship with Yip (Tandem student).

The experiences also develop respect and admiration:

This guy camped all over Scotland, on his own, with a back pack, on buses and trains—god knows I couldn’t imagine doing that (Student Union Exec member).

Feedback among some of the home students was not always positive. Film quality and content were important; some sections were, they complained, ‘Amateurish and difficult to hear’, and they felt their attention waned if the presentation did not compete with professional ‘sound bites’, or became impatient if it told them something obvious that they already knew. There was concern that while newly arrived international students may find some of the clips reassuring, it was felt that it was important to contextualise them as a way of celebrating the diversity and inclusivity of the University, rather than something specifically about international students. The inclusion of other groups of students, such as non-traditional, disabled, UK Asian, students studying on course delivered abroad and students from other parts of the UK, would acknowledge all kinds of differences and make a stronger statement. This response raises important issues about how to proceed with intercultural work with students; to be aware of the potential to reinforce a sense of difference and a less positive effect.

Limitations to interculturalism: a note of realism

The desire to meet and connect with home students is often a key reason why international students choose to study abroad; yet these connections continue to be difficult to establish. Most will generally choose not to go outside of their cultural groups and divisions can reinforce negative perceptions of one other. When effective mixing does take place, students claim they learn new ways of interacting, perform better and see value in learning from each other.

However, there is a range of evidence that demonstrates how linguistic and cultural differences and perceptions of one another create barriers to successful international connection of this kind (Li, Clark and Kaye,1997; Thom, 2000; Wright and Lander, 2003; De Vita, 2005). Recent research in the UK, by Harrison and Peacock (2007), shows that there are many other issues that both groups of students must deal with. They also noted that home students may see international students as cliquey and difficult to get to know or feel intimidated by what they perceive as their courage and seriousness. Meanwhile, Philo (2007), writing about the experience of Chinese students in the UK, reveals a gulf between these students’ values and what they perceive as the vacuous party culture of UK students. While there are positive aspects to be appreciated on both sides, the negatives and the differences will make it likely that spontaneous, genuine, intercultural interaction between international students and their host community will remain unusual.

Opportunities for cross-cultural and linguistic connection are often limited and students are likely to seek support from others with whom they feel ‘cultural–emotional connectedness’ (Volet and Ang, 1998), among other international students. These are significant networks for many students, acting as repositories of knowledge and sources of support through transition. Students with a strong base of co-national and international friends may remain isolated from home students, but others feel strengthened and eventually move outwards. Some students learn alongside other international students and have their most significant social interaction with one another. Other courses are almost monocultural, especially at postgraduate level. In any case, mere exposure to people from different cultures does not constitute internationalisation.


Much has been said about a vision of an international university and what it might achieve in promoting interculturalism, graduate employability, genuine critical enquiry and the enhancement of student experience. There is no doubt that attempts to achieve this can be uncomfortable and difficult to achieve; managing diversity is intrinsically so.

It is proper that universities provide opportunities for genuine engagement with other academic cultures, styles and forms of knowledge, whether or not political or economic imperatives that are institutional or national seem to demand it. Yet engagement is becoming more difficult to arrange as in universities and elsewhere in society; busy lives and technology affect the form, and the volume, of communication. Projects in universities that are designed to ‘overcome’ the barriers to intercultural exchange and enrichment can create opportunities to listen to international student voices, which can be a valuable resource both for international students and for building intercultural relationships outside the international classroom.

It can be difficult to make the first step, to engage face to face with a person who is different. Most people will shy away from it, while feeling that they ought to engage more effectively. Universities that seek to promote international experience for all students will find it necessary to manage these encounters if the complexity of cultural difference, inclusive of the many other aspects of diversity, such as age, gender and class, is to be recognised. To do so requires an understanding of our own and others’ exclusiveness, and the simple act of listening to one another speak can both begin and ease that process.

In this project the process of presenting voices validated and enhanced the experiences of participating students, and that of others in similar situations. When presented to home students, these voices had some potential to generate better cultural understanding and reflection. The circulation of student testimony into a wider arena can increase its resonance and promote cultural transfer, trigger enquiry and challenge existing ideas, activities well suited to universities in the twenty-first century.


Viv Thom is the International Student Education Adviser at Sheffield Hallam University. She is responsible for the management and delivery of student support for international students and for collaborative learning projects with faculties. Based in the Learner Support Team, she has longstanding experience developing inclusive and responsive strategies for students making transitions into unfamiliar learning cultures. She has worked throughout South Asia and established an international reputation for innovative approaches to internationalisation and teaching and learning in higher education. She is a member of the HE Academy.


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