Most students mix only with people from similar backgrounds. But should universities do more to encourage integration?

soas
04-11-2014

Victoria Ngow is an electrical engineering student at Sheffield Unviersity.  In a blog written for The Guardian (April 11, 2013) she asks: "Have you ever lived with a "Chinese phantom" in student halls?" She goes on to explain that "according to urbandictionary.com, these phantoms are usually (but not necessarily) Asian and they "don't socialise apart from at phantom gatherings."

Eventhough many universities pride themselves on their international reach, they can not control student friendship groups which are more often than not, defined by nationality. According to Ngow, "it's not just Chinese students who don't mix, Brits also tend to stick together."

There are complex reasons behind this social trend. Fadi Dakkak, is an International Student Officer of the University of Sheffield's Student Union.  He says that one of the reasons for this social trend is "cultural differences".

Victoria Ngow wonders if British drinking culture stops overseas students from hanging out with locals. She believes that it may perhaps do so, but there are many international students she knows that enjoy clubbing and drinking just as much as those born in the UK. More importantly, she notes, there are plenty of opportunities - from sports to film societies - to socialise that don't involve alcohol.

Joshua Watts, a British undergraduate, says that students are likely to mix in an academic context, but adds: "I guess it's natural to revert to friends of the same background during your free time."

But for international students, the UK university experience is very different. Local students  live a few hours from home, at most, whereas international students are thousands of miles away from their family and friends. Moreover, students' financial situations can also differ. Most UK students are dependent upon termly loan instalments.

Dakkak recalls his own experience as a student.  He believes that there's a danger that predjudice can also stop students from interacting. He notes: "If I had an issue with someone from a certain country or background, I made the mistake of assuming that everyone from that background would be the same."

He says: "Generalisations about other cultures can only be fought by educating people and actually providing students with the platform to mix."

Many universities are finding new ways to bridge the gap, because simply putting different people into the same space and expecting them to integrate doesn't always work.

The University of Sheffield's student union has produced a video campaign to help in this regard, as it wants to blur the distinction between home and local students and believes that as it works with people from around the world on a daily basis, all students are international students.

Some university staff make the effort to pair international students with home students for group projects. Student unions across the country also organise welcome events to encourage student mingling.  They also arrange for overseas students to stay with local hosts during vacations. All this is properly streamlined by the national initiative of the UK Council of International Student Affairs.

The benefits of mixing with people from different backgrounds have been well documented. Ngow notes that in today's job market, students have to prove that they are culturally agile and aware of global issues.

Dinesh Thayalan from Malaysia says: "I chose to study abroad to learn from and with a community of different cultures." But local students also benefit.  They have the opportunity to learn from different people, without going abroad.

According to Ngow, one of the best things about universities is that it's a chance to meet people that you wouldn't otherwise encounter. This is why it's a shame that more students aren't taking up this opportunity.

[Photo: International students relaxing in the common room at SOAS by Graham Turner for the Guardian]

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