Showcase: International Student Support Group
Things we wish we knew before coming to the UK to study
- Perspectives from an International Student Support Group
Jane Titterton (University of Nottingham's Counselling Service)
In 2018, as a counsellor in the University of Nottingham Counselling Service, I recognised that a support group for our international students could be of value.
We meet once a month for an hour and a half with sessions facilitated by me, Jane Titterton, a Counselling Psychologist at the University’s Counselling Service.
The group is a confidential and safe space for our international students to discuss anything affecting them. The group is facilitated to encourage peer support for students to share their issues and what has helped or not helped them in adjusting to studying and living in the UK. We can talk about anything from homesickness and culture shock, to Brexit, racism, self-esteem, difficulties with motivation and study, the impact of lockdown and COVID and of course, food!
The group is a confidential and safe space for our international students. We meet once a month for an hour and a half.
Referrals into the group come via counsellors in our service, or other University staff supporting students. I then contact the student and arrange a short meeting to talk about the group and answer any questions.
When the UK entered its first lockdown in March 2020, and we were told to work from home, I was presented with a unique challenge on how to proceed. We suspended the in-person meeting in April and then following feedback from members that an online session would be helpful, we went ahead with an online MS Teams video call session in May 2020. We haven’t looked back since and continue to meet via Teams monthly. New members have joined, and others have moved on, and we hope to one day meet in person. Group members find it very heartening to know that this supportive space can continue online.
It is very heartening to know that this supportive space can continue online.
Things we wish we knew…
I recently asked members what they wished they knew or could have told themselves before studying in the UK. Here’s what they had to say:
Prepare yourself for the initial adjustment period. You’ll have understandable expectations about what it will be like to study here. Try to loosen them because it isn’t always what you might expect. While initially, people might not seem so friendly, given time, you will find ‘your people’.
Prepare yourself for the initial adjustment period and not to be so hard on yourself.
The weather in the UK sometimes has to be experienced to be believed. As one student said, “…you hear the jokes about English weather but don’t really get it until you’re here.” In the autumn and winter months, the weather (the dark and the grey) can take some time to get used to. However, it can be worth it because those crisp, bright autumn and winter days (when they happen) are quite stunning and unlike anything you may have seen before.
This brings us neatly into the autumn and winter daylight situation. It’s lighter later and darker earlier (like 4 pm earlier). For some, it can affect mood, and for most, it is another adjustment. Your eyes see it is dark outside, but the clock says it is only four in the afternoon – what the?!? When you’re adjusting to so much already, it can really hit you.
The ‘party’ culture can be different from what you are used to, and clubs close or parties may end sooner than what you would expect at home.
One piece of advice would be not to be so hard on yourself. There can be an expectation that you are solely responsible for yourself now that you have decided to study abroad. There are great skills learnt in independence, but it can also feel isolating like you’re the only one not coping. Being hard on yourself or blaming yourself when things don’t go to plan isn’t that helpful and can make you feel worse.
“…you hear the jokes about English weather but don’t really get it until you’re here…”
Reconsider what it means to be independent.
Do stay in contact with supports from home whether that’s family or friends or previous teachers or lecturers. Consider reaching out for support from University student support services or clubs and societies.
You are allowed to enjoy your time here and don’t have to spend all your time studying
One member wished they knew that the personal relationships formed here in the UK would become just as important as those they left at home.
Academic life is not everything. It is important to look after yourself and work on getting that balance right for you. You are allowed to enjoy your time here and don’t have to spend all your time studying.
Remember, you may feel alone, but you are not. Chances are, other international students can understand exactly what you’re going through.
Remember, you may feel alone, but you are not.
Finally, manage your expectations. Try not to enter your study abroad, expecting to meet your one massive group of friends straightaway. It is taking longer than you anticipated isn’t necessarily a reflection on you and your social skills. You’re trying to learn another country's social language, it takes time, and trial and error to discover this.
The International Student Support Group at the University of Nottingham offers a space to talk with other international students who really understand what you are experiencing. Particularly during these isolated and lonely times, it is an important way to connect with our international student community.
If you are interested in finding out more about the group: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/counselling/workshops-and-groups/groups.aspx
Thanks to the International Student Support group members for sharing their experiences so openly with me – it’s a privilege, it really is. J
Working in Partnership
The project is nation-wide. We're making a real effort to engage with everyone interested in international student mental health, including universities, mental health services, students unions, sector bodies, charities and organisations such a private student accommodation.
The project is led by the University of Nottingham, in partnership with the University of Nottingham Students' Union, University of Leeds, Leeds University Union, SOAS, SOAS Students' Union, Student Minds and Campuslife Ltd.
Project funded as part of the Office for Students Mental Health Challenge Competition.