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Supporting international students’ wellbeing at university

By October 31, 2023No Comments

Positive transitions-care for lifelong wellbeing is becoming widely understood in schools around the world. New research and practice, discussed at SPAN’s 2023 Global Symposium, shows how vital these links are for international university students, too.

Multicultural diverse happy students on campus

Ruth Holmes

24 OCTOBER 2023

Speakers at the 2023 Safe Passage Across Networks’ (SPAN) Global Symposium explored how international schools and universities are supporting students’ transitions-care to higher education now – and what more leaders, global mobility and transitions-care professionals in education can do in the future.The conclusions widen the lens of who can benefit from more support to make positive international moves – and the role of schools, universities, parents and student voice in making this happen.They also provide a direct link to employers’ wellbeing focus and talent pipelines. Creating a resilient workforce of individuals who are equipped with life skills like growth mindsets, a global outlook and empathy who can adapt to and embrace change is crucial for the future workforce. Especially so where the human skills of self-care and good judgement will shape how AI is deployed for the betterment of all.

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Student wellbeing a key priority

Setting out a new model for supporting higher education (HE) students in cultural transition were Katie Rigg, director of higher education and wellbeing services, the Council of International Schools (CIS), and Kristen Rosenfield, secondary counsellor at Luanda International School in Angola.“One of the really big themes we identified in our research is the big gap between schools and universities,” says Katie Rigg about the multistakeholder research CIS has been conducting in this area. “Both were saying they wanted to develop stronger partnerships, learn from each other about international students’ needs, and wanted to coordinate support so that international students can have a smoother transition.”CIS’s draft Transitions-Care Model for schools and universities, presented at the SPAN Symposium, is building momentum for new practices and a more focused approach. Post-pandemic, awareness of young people’s mental health has grown in line with the number of young people seeking help. Even before 2020, figures from a 2017 US study of 42,480 domestic students and 2,423 international students in 42 HE colleges show international students were both less likely to access support and 40% more likely to reach crisis point with their mental health.“This finding is really alarming,” says Katie Rigg. “It struck me because it shows that international students aren’t recognised as having mental health conditions. There’s other research as well that shows if not managed well, transitions generally – and we’re focusing on transitions from school to university – if they are unmanaged, can undermine protective relationships and lead to difficulties in forming identity and unresolved grief.”This picture corresponds with the Council of International Schools’ membership surveys. These show a marked increase post-pandemic in the number of students with eating disorders and anxiety. Taken together, the conclusions suggest an urgent need to do more to support international students’ transitions in HE settings and students for transitions throughout their education journey.

Embedding transitions-care throughout school life

The CIS has over the past few years been working with schools and universities to offer evidence-based support for international students so they can make healthier transitions between secondary and higher education.CIS’s draft Transitions-Care Model for schools and universities is based on academic research and literature reviews, as well as the views and experiences of headteachers, counsellors, admissions and student services, parents and students. Fostering connection and belonging – essential for good wellbeing and mental resilience – came out as strongly in the literature reviews.CIS’s survey also shows that well over 90% of schools currently provide transitions-care. This is mostly in the practical search and application process and academic skills development. It also highlights gaps in current provision and offers a framework of practice based on stronger partnerships between international schools and universities.The Transitions-Care model focuses on those areas that are less well-served, including careers advice and how to:

  • prepare for cultural adjustments and understand students’ own identities
  • develop life, social and emotional skills, and help-seeking behaviours
  • prepare for mental health stressors
  • engage with and support parents
  • widen the number of countries and institutions covered from the current narrow focus on Europe and North America.

A further key finding was that students, parents and schools would all like transitions-care to be embedded throughout their time at school – not just at established points of transition, like the move from secondary school to university when it becomes the responsibility of the university guidance counsellor.From the university side of the transitions-care, the CIS’s work showed significant diversity in the types of support offered, from tailored to nothing it all. It also revealed repatriating students’ (those returning to their passport country, or where they spent most of their formative years before becoming globally mobile) needs – including managing reverse culture shock – often go unrecognised. Many universities regard international students as an homogenous group, while structural barriers can create significant difficulties.The survey also shows that university counselling departments are often overwhelmed with the demand for their services. Interestingly, both parents and school representatives rank life-skills development as important. However, this came as one of the lowest priorities among the university representatives surveyed.

Linking international education with university and post-graduate life

Bringing all these findings and factors together, CIS’s practical Transitions-Care Model for schools and universities centres on individual purpose and direction, encompassed by an understanding of:

  • identity, purpose and goals
  • career exploration
  • and the right ‘fit’ for post-secondary options.

The goal is to set young people up to thrive in their transition from school to university and beyond graduation. Individual purpose and direction is supported by four pillars:

  1. Skills development: including social, emotional, global perspective building, self-advocacy and personal safety
  2. Practical support: including immigration, travel, housing, finances and employment opportunities. Health insurance and medical care, and local laws and cultural norms
  3. Connection and belonging: social media, alumni, peer support, clubs and personal tutors
  4. Wellbeing: help-seeking, growth mindsets and resilience, counselling support and centralising information.

Running through each of these elements is a focus on culture and cultural adjustments, digital transitions, and inclusion (through diversity, equity and anti-racism). These nurture the all-important sense of connection and belonging underpinned by the normalisation of help-seeking behaviours.Kate Rigg explains what the model looks like in practice, including around the pillar of wellbeing: “For example, if you take a cross-cultural view of help-seeking, there’s literature now that mentions how interventions developed for one socio-cultural context, eg white, affluent American or European, are not necessarily appropriate when dealing with people from different cultural contexts with different needs, interests and desires.“If a clinician is talking to a student from Asia for example about their mental health, it’s much better to avoid physiological terms, like stress, and talk instead in terms of wellness. That’s what we mean by cultural adjustments.”At Luanda International School in Angola, secondary counsellor, Kristen Rosenfield, is engaging the school’s board and community by sharing resources and training, including parent and alumni engagement, to embed transitions-care and life skills at every opportunity. It also measures the success of its programmes.“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” she says. “There are resources and lesson plans we can share and there are opportunities for parents to engage when they are on campus to stagger that transitions-care information throughout high school, rather than in being loaded in the final year or two of school.“Of course, we’ve also heard of the importance of alumni involvement,” continues Kristen Rosenfield. “I’ve found the connection meeting between the most recent graduating alumni class and my current seniors, a conversation we usually have in March, so useful. Even though the alumni are giving the same message that I am, they are much more credible sources of information on that culture shift and transition to university and the dos and don’ts than I could ever be.”With change a constant in today’s workplace, schools and globally mobile populations, these important moments of connection and reconnection reinforce a sense of belonging, identity and resilience in one seamless journey. Supported by better transitions-care in universities, all these links throughout individual education journeys better equip young people with the skills they need to thrive throughout their life. These are all transferable to working life, and an individual’s engagement with, and the fulfilment of, their own and their future employer’s goals.

Source – Supporting international students’ wellbeing at university | Ruth Holmes | Relocate magazine