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Interview with Andrew Lane, Deputy Director of International Development at Northumbria University.

In April this year, Northumbria University was voted among the top three institutions under the international category at the Whatuni Student Choice Awards (#WUSCA). What makes this awards ceremony so powerful is the fact that students themselves are the judges. With 148 institutions listed, 36, 000 students around the UK voted across 15 different categories, including uni facilities, job prospects and accommodation. We spoke to Andrew Lane, Deputy Director of International Development at Northumbria University, about how his institution goes about making their 3500+ international students feel so welcome.

How many international students do you have and where do they come from?
We have around 3500 international students from around 130 countries around the world, with the biggest markets being China, Malaysia, India, Nigeria, and the Gulf. With a total student body of around 34,000, our international students make up about 10% and we’re very proud of our diversity.

What value does international students bring to campus life?
Our international students bring a wonderful sense of richness to life on campus, as well as to the broader city of Newcastle. Our city has a long-standing history of being inclusive. There’s genuine interest from people across the city to learn more from our international students. The contribution they make to the life of the city is not only recognised but celebrated.

Our international students bring new and unique perspectives to campus, which in turn expose our domestic students to different cultures, dialogues and alternative ways of thinking. This is so important as it cultivates tolerance across communities and makes diversity the norm. With so many international students from both Northumbria University and Newcastle University, Newcastle is delightfully vibrant.

What programmes do you have in place to welcome new international students and how long does it usually take for them to feel at home?
We offer an extensive welcome programme for international students, which we review each year based on feedback. It includes picking new international arrivals up from the airport, helping them settle into accommodation and guiding them to engage with our services during welcome week. We also work with the local council to welcome our international students in September – international flags are hung up all around the city and outside the civic centre – this means that they receive a warm and colourful welcome even beyond campus.

Which of these initiatives is your most successful?
I think the more organic the initiative the better. We hosted a dodgeball tournament for some of our study abroad exchange students. It was great fun, relaxing and not part of a particular agenda, which is why I think it was such a success. The danger with orientation programmes can be that everything starts feeling very process-driven. The tournament was a fantastic way to lighten the tone, while facilitating networking.

What are the biggest challenges that international students face when they first arrive?
New international students often don’t realise that when they start their academic year in September, winter is around the corner. Their study experience starts with the excitement of welcome week and a series of events, but three months in, when it’s cold and dark, it’s a very different story. Studies have shown that culture shock starts to bite around the three-month mark and of course in the UK that takes students into the heart of winter. This combination of shorter days, cold weather and homesickness can be the perfect storm – it’s definitely a big challenge for us and probably for many other institutions too. We try to arrange events around this time, but the most important thing is to manage expectations by preparing students throughout the pre-departure process.

What is integration like between international and domestic students?
There’s a whole spectrum of integration between domestic and international students, from those who actively seek out opportunities to engage with students from different nationalities and cultures, to those who perhaps view their time here as a more transactional exercise and are less motivated by cultural experience. I think University’s need to be realistic around the potential for integration and seek to provide more organic opportunities for students to meet and mix, rather than trying to artificially forge relationships through formal activities and programmes.

There is also a lot of emphasis on integration between international and domestic students, but what’s equally powerful is the integration and friendships that form between international students from different countries, especially when those countries have histories of conflict.

What type of support is there for international students in their course work?
In-sessional English programmes are now a compulsory part of the curriculum for all international students for whom English is not their first language. Previously these were optional but this tended to imply they weren’t necessarily a priority and, as a result, students didn’t perhaps make best use of the opportunity. We’ve seen a real uplift in international student performance since making the change.

How have you approached your international marketing strategy around Brexit?
Part of the challenge, alongside the uncertainty over what Brexit will look like, is that across different countries there are differing interpretations of what it might mean for international students, and in some cases the message becomes about managing expectations. Basically, we approach it by being as transparent as possible. As a university, we didn’t ask for Brexit and as a city, Newcastle voted against leaving the EU. Our message to international students is that despite Brexit, we remain globally focussed and welcoming. We’re also in the process of launching a new campus in Amsterdam and that serves as a helpful reflection of our international outlook!

To find out more about the annual WUSCA awards, click here.

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