All freshers worry about making friends when they start university, says Natalie Gil, journalist for The Guardian (September 19, 2014). However, breaking into a new social scene is an even bigger challenge for international students. In those nerve-racking first weeks, a great starting point are the societies that represent your culture.
Culture and language societies aim to bring together students based on their shared heritage. They also provide an anchor in a daunting new environment. But, one of the disadvantages is that they can become insular, making students less inclined to broaden their social circles.
Chris Lee, a socieity member and law student at Bristol University says: "The Hong Kong society is a double-edged sword." It acts as a "home away from home" and gives younger students the chance to learn from the experience of older compatriots. However, Lee thinks it can also stop them getting fully involved with British culture. Afterall, getting involved with British culture is one of the reasons they came to the UK in the first place.
Lee addes: "I've paid international student fees hoping to experience a foreign culture, but such experience is merely on a superficial level." Eventhough Lee tries to interact with British students, he admits that conversing with fellow Cantonese-speakers feels much more natural.
Cultural societies can have a negative effect by preventing their members' English skills from improving.
Lee continues by saying: "Students in the Hong Kong society are deeply attached to Hong Kong culture. In social situations, most of them wouldn't speak English unless you pointed a gun at their head."
There are however many cultural societies that reach out to students outside their own nationality. Karol Kelner is a student studying business management with marketing. She foundation the American society at Brunel University. She says: "My society welcomes all," and adds: "I try to work on the basis on which America was founded – of everyone being welcome."
Likewise, the Irish society at the University of Sussex has many non-Irish members. Cal McLoughlin is the society's president. He says: "The English and international students find it a novelty getting to learn about Irish culture." He notes that many Swedish students unexpectedly turned up at the society's last St Patrick's Day breakfast.
McLoughlin adds: "It adds a new element to friendships because I'm teaching them about my culture and the differences between the cultures."
Eric Chim, an economics and international relations student and member of the Hong Kong society at Durham University, says that his university helps different groups get to know one another. "The international office and international student committee play a vital part in promoting interaction between cultural societies," he says.
Cultural societies provide a much-needed haven for new students, but not everyone feels the need to join one. Audrey Le Bihan is a French student studying medicine at the University of Manchester. She hasn't joined the university's French society. "It is mainly British members trying to develop opportunities to speak French. I didn't feel this could be a potential support or friendship network for myself and therefore focused my attention on societies for medical students," she says.
Natie Gil says that whether or not you decide to join a cultural society, international students can follow some basic tips to make friends and integrate themselves into British university life.
She summarizes some tips for international freshers she has gathered from international students:
• "Arriving early to lectures and starting up conversations with your fellow classmates is a good way to make friends and find common ground," says Kelner.
• Make an effort to speak English in social situations if it's not your first language. "Most UK people won't laugh at your English," says Chim.
• "Learn the norms so you don't offend anyone – for example, say "thank you" to the bus driver, which isn't a common practice in East Asia," he says.
• Most importantly, don't start university with assumptions about British culture or feeling like you automatically won't fit in, advises Lee. "Always leave your door open and give yourself as many options to meet new people as possible."
Gil further warns: "Don't forget, societies are not just for freshers. For students already at university, freshers' week is a great time to join one – you'll mostly likely have already established your own friendship groups and will have invaluable advice to offer freshers, be it pastoral or academic."
[Photo: Alamy/The Guardian]
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