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‘They don't really want to know us’: experiences and perceptions of international students at the Dublin Institute of Technology

Author - Almut Schlepper

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The research process

The research was conducted on the Kevin Street campus of the DIT as it has the highest number of international students across the faculties of science, engineering, applied arts and business. For a number of reasons, the timing and sample were extremely limited, therefore the study has more a character of an exploratory pilot study. The fact that I am a lecturer at the college posed a number of problems as it increased the bias and the hierarchical relationship between researcher and researched – even though none of the participants were my own students. The researcher must play a number of conflicting roles in his/her organisation, so a high degree of reflexivity is necessary both during the research process and in the interpretation of the results (Alvesson and Sköldberg, 2000: 6). These methodological problems are counterbalanced by some advantages: doing research at you work place one has both formal and informal access to information. Afterwards it offers the possibility to disseminate the results to participants and college authorities in order to try and implement the suggestions for improvement. The research findings and emanating suggestions were also discussed with the president of DIT, the international student officer and the dean for international students, all of whom were appointed after the research was carried out. It remains to be seen whether they take the recommendations on board.

A mixture of methods was applied. A self-completion questionnaire was send out to the 80 international students at the college both by e-mail and by traditional mail. Twenty-seven of these were returned and analysed. A deeper and more detailed account was obtained by interviewing 15 students. The majority of students were Chinese, reflecting their predominance among international students in Dublin. The other countries represented were Zambia, Swaziland, Nigeria, Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Japan, Venezuela and Bulgaria. To complement the picture, lecturers were asked for their comments and observations in a short questionnaire which was sent out by e-mail and hard copy; 22 lecturers responded.

Research findings

Results from students' questionnaire and interviews
The international students are a highly diverse group, with different experiences and backgrounds. They differ not only according to country of origin, gender and religion but they also have different educational and linguistic backgrounds; a large age span, different ways of supporting themselves financially; varying degrees of contact with other students, lecturers and administration; and different experiences regarding discrimination. This illustrates what Dr Sanjay Sharma stresses in saying that 'the only thing to be certain of when teaching in a multicultural context, 'is how little is actually known about the heterogeneity of the student body… or rather, how little should be assumed about them' (Sharma 2003: 24, italics in original).

The following issues were raised by a large number of students (actual student quotations italics):

They are critical of fees (the amount, the method of payment and the lack of fairness), believing that the high fees do not correspond with a high level of support by the institute.
It should think about how to make us more comfortable and satisfied. This is a way
the college could do promotion, to get students to come here.

They have to make an effort to adapt to the different demands of the educational
system, forms of assessment and different teacher-student relationships.
The lecturers should give foreigners extra time, the speed is too fast. I can't cope with
the speed. I can't even take notes. They should give private lessons.

While having problems with the content of studies, nearly all have problems with
the English language which is often caused by different accents and specific vocabulary. The language barrier seems to be both the cause and the result of their
limited contact with home students.
It'd be good if they treated us as equals, not aliens.

Many students will not ask if they have a problem it requires a lot of attention from lecturers.
If you don't ask they won't come to you.

Contact and support comes mainly from other international students, especially from
their own country, and to some extent from the lecturers. They complain, however, of
little support from the administration and student's union.
We come here and we know nothing and have to ask a lot of questions. They get fed up with us asking questions and also our English is not good enough.

Although most students experienced discrimination outside college they do not
explicitly refer to it within the college. However their suggestions imply that they do
sometimes feel discriminated against, especially by being ignored rather than included.
They don't really want to know you. Contact with Irish students is very limited even in college because international students are feeling distanced and ignored. Their wish for Irish students to initiate the encounter is met by lack of interest of Irish students. They should be more forthcoming to the international students. They have a culture which we have to learn and they the can learn from us. This is increased by language and cultural barriers, age (maturity), different ways of socialising, and even no time for socialising because of work demands. They have a different way of communicating, different topics.
It is hard to get to know people other than superficially. You don't know what they are exactly thinking.

The international students wish to overcome this distancing by uniting amongthemselves and by making themselves 'known', but there is a lack of structural and institutional support, no forum but even no informal get-togethers.
I want to mingle with them, I want to make friends with them, want to let them know that I am just as human as they are, just as friendly as anyone else, give me a chance.


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