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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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International students as consumers

The suggestions confirm the findings of previous research that, considering their high level of financial contribution, international students are not getting the service to which they are entitled. The International Student Forum hosted by the Irish Council for International Students highlighted the same issues (Cox 2003: 53). There are no practical provisions, such as support with accommodation, flexibility in paying the fees, no rewards for achievements by grants, no structures for representation. No allowances are made for not being a native speaker of English. The frequent complaints concerning administration clearly indicate that the students felt there was no one listening to them, no one they could approach with their problems. It has to be said that because the administrative staff are often the first and most important point of contact, they have to bear the brunt of the disappointment about the lack of support, grants and scholarships. Requests are usually directed at them – such as the prevailing issue of accommodation – which are within their remit anyway and should be addressed by DIT as a whole. It is interesting that because of the strong multicultural network, the students are quite aware of what is happening in other colleges and even other countries. If DIT does not want to lose these students as consumers it is necessary to make its 'product' attractive to them. Therefore it has to make academic and other services more responsive and appropriate (Cox 2003: 54).

Interaction between international students and Irish students

In order for international students to benefit fully from their sojourn in Ireland, not only will the academic and language support have to be increased but also the social aspect of their lives has to be organised in such a way as to enable them to engage with the home students and college life in general. While it will be important to introduce measures such as a tutor or buddy system as has been done at Trinity College, this sort of organised social support alone cannot overcome the reluctance of the Irish students to engage in encounters with the international students. The Students Union could do a lot more to give them a voice: for example, the student newspaper could play a more active role in this respect by interviewing individual students. A common theme of the students’ suggestions is the wish to be recognised, to be given the possibility to express and engage themselves and to inform others about their country or culture. While an international day or an international society is an important step in that direction it does not guarantee the involvement of the Irish students as long as Irish national and international are seen as exclusionary. As the literature has shown, international students are again often isolated and among themselves at these events.

As Irish students were not included in the research we have to rely on what the international students perceive as reasons for the reluctance of the Irish students to engage with them: language barrier, cultural differences, age difference, different forms of socialising or simply not initiating encounters, which was perceived as disinterest. Interestingly it was remarked that the Irish students can overcome their insularity if they themselves have been studying abroad and can empathise with the experiences of the international students. As few Irish students study abroad, the 'internationalisation at home' is even more relevant and should be promoted by involving the international students at many levels of the institutional life (Cox 2003: 54). However, increased contact alone does not necessary lead to understanding: there has to be an awareness of the cultural dispositions that determine both one's own behaviour and that of the 'other'. FitzGerald (2003: 5) suggests a 'cross-cultural literacy' training for communication which would enable people to deal with difference as an everyday reality.

Language support

After fees, the next greatest problem perceived by both students and lecturers is the lack of language proficiency. To overcome this obstacle, more extensive and specific language support is needed. Students should not be penalised for lack of language proficiency in assessments, and special provisions should be made for them in exams (e.g. use of electronic dictionaries). It has to be noted, however, that the best way to improve language skills is contact with native speakers, which could be encouraged by mixing native and international students for group work. A buddy system, especially for incoming students, has proven useful elsewhere. Just how far language difficulties are both the cause and the effect of the segregation of international students as suggested in the literature should be further investigated (Roberts 2003; Kim 1991).

There were some indications that international students contribute to their isolation by keeping to themselves. This confirms research findings regarding the importance of the mono-cultural network for support and sense of identity (Kagan and Cohen 1990). The fact that multi-cultural networks with other international students ranged second on their list of priorities supports the argument that the perception of exclusion and discrimination favours the identification with other international students and the creation of another group identity (Schmitt et al. 2003). The frequent use of the 'them' and 'us' categories suggest that the students perceive themselves already as a group. An important factor which contributes to the impossibility of mixing with Irish students is lack of time, as many students have to work in order to be able to afford the fees. This would make a reassessments of the amount and forms of payment all the more necessary.

 


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