Doing more to welcome international students in September

22 Jul 2021
By Pin Yiong, Intrapreneur at Unite Students

More than most, international students have faced major obstacles in their university experience since last March – from travel bans into and out of the UK, to the suspension of temporary student visas. So, the international students of 2021/22 will require additional support, reassurance, and resource to help them settle in. 

Pin Yiong, one of the intrapreneurs working to develop the service we offer at Unite Students, outlines how we’re developing our international student orientation, as well as his own experiences of arriving to study in the UK as an international student. 

The last 18 months have been unprecedented and unexpected. But for our international students who are due to start their student journey in 2021/22, the idea of leaving the known and venturing into the unknown has never been more real. This is an incredibly exciting, but also super stressful time for them. 

At Unite Students, we place our students at the heart of what we do. We aim to be a community first, and a company second. In order to keep our promise to students, we are rethinking our international orientation plan, starting with our newly revamped resident ambassador programme. The purpose of the programme is simple: capture the voice of our unique student communities, focus on the messages that matter, and deliver a personalised student experience. 

I remember the day I arrived in London. It was cold, and the hoodie I wore did nothing to keep me warm, just as my mother warned me. The 14-hour flight was taking its toll and I was tired and hungry, but as I got on the Megabus leaving Victoria Coach Station to Bristol, all I had on my mind was one thing – I wanted to find an iconic red telephone box. It may sound silly, but it was no longer an image on a screen: it symbolised that I was here in England, and this was real. It made me realise that I was given a chance to experience a different country and, as scary as things might be, I was incredibly excited for this once in a lifetime opportunity!

With international students, we are rethinking what ‘settling in’ means to them. This includes helping them find their co-nationals faster to form friendship groups, easy room swaps and allocations based on preferences and interests, or even longer city orientation periods so that our new cohort of internationals are able to quickly settle into their home away from home. The resident ambassador programme is the glue that holds this together, as it will be the medium through which we ask our internationals what they need. The past year has quickly shown that peer-to-peer support is paramount to building a thriving community; as such, we are investing in a comprehensive learning and development programme that will develop the necessary skills in our city teams and resident ambassadors to support international students. 

Many of the international students that live with us are Chinese, and being Chinese myself, I acknowledge the differences between cultures and the initial friction this may bring. 

When we listen and celebrate what we share and where we differ, we become a wiser, better, and more inclusive organisation.

It is our goal at Unite Students to build a community that celebrates diversity, and we plan to do this through various events specifically tailored for each of our properties.

Being a more inclusive organisation also means ensuring that international students feel included from the moment they arrive. First impressions count, so it’s important that internationals receive the same standard of personalised welcome as their domestic peers; our digital check-in means we have sight of who’s arriving and when, meaning we’re ready whatever time of day or night they arrive. We’re also offering students from amber list countries an additional three weeks free at the start of their tenancies so that they can quarantine without penalty or missing out on our Welcome Week events and opportunities.

International students are no strangers to sacrifice during their journey. There is an immense pressure on them to return home to their family and society with something to show for their time at university. This achievement comes in many forms, unique to everyone, but generally it comes in the form of good grades. However, the incoming international Chinese cohort may be coming to the UK with more on their mind than just good grades. 

After completing their studies and returning home to China, they not only have to face the rat race, but also the 9-9-6 – a work culture prevalent with many top employers in China, in which employees are expected to work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. On China’s social media platform Weibo, hashtags of ‘involution’ or ‘neijuan’ have been viewed over 1 billion times in the last year. Originally anthropological terms, China’s Gen Z have begun to use them to express a feeling of being burnt out. 

In response, another concept has emerged – the concept of ‘tang ping’, which means ‘lying flat’ in Mandarin. The idea behind ‘tang ping’ is one of not overworking, being content with more attainable achievements and allowing time to unwind. Understanding what international students may face after they’ve left the UK helps us to think about how we can help them during their time living with us. 

I was fortunate enough to have experienced the international student journey first-hand. Over a decade later, the one lesson I would love to pass on to my fellow internationals coming in September is: persevere. Stay the course and remember that the journey is yours, so make the most of it!

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Pin Yiong is an Intrapreneur at Unite Students. Previously he was a Sales & Service Supervisor in Bristol, looking after various properties and providing a Home for Success for first-year, postgraduate and international students.