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Fostering a Climate of Inclusion & Belonging for International Students

Monday, February 3, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Andrew Gordon, CEO & Founder, Diversity Abroad
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Each year thousands of students, young people and scholars from around the world choose to study, pursue research and work-based exchange programs in the United States. According to the Open Doors® report published by the Institute of International Education over one million international students studied in the United States during the 2018/19 year. While international students primarily come from China and India, students from all regions of the world choose the United States as a destination for tertiary education. When international students feel a sense of belonging on campus this not only supports their success, it also supports a rich global learning environment that domestic students benefit from as well. From international food nights and a parade of nations, to celebrating international holidays and identity specific student clubs, institutions across the country engage in a variety of activities to help international students feel included on campus. However, given reports of international students facing xenophobia and racism in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak, we're reminded that international students and their sense of belonging at our institutions are critical aspects to diversity, equity and inclusion work in international education. Our international students embody many of the identities that our domestic students do - students of color, first-generation, low-income, LGBTQ, have disabilities and are students of faith - albeit likely through a unique cultural lens informed by their country of origin. As educators we're deeply committed to the success - academic, interpersonal and otherwise - of all of our students, regardless of country of origin. Thus, here are four ways international education professionals can work to build a climate of inclusion and belonging for inbound international students.


Build Partnerships Across Campus

It's not a secret that many of our institutions operate in silos. This operational structure can make it challenging to build meaningful partnership with non-international education colleagues to support international students. That said, partnerships with diversity & inclusion offices, other student affairs units as well as faculty is critical to ensure such professionals are cognizant of their role in fostering a climate of belonging for international students. 


What you can do:

Start small, invite colleagues to coffee, a brown bag lunch or a reception to discuss the state of international students on your campus. While many of our colleagues are fully aware that there are international students on campus they may not be as familiar with their countries of origin, unique challenges they may face or the wide array of social identities they embody. Equally important to educating colleagues on the state of international students on campus is our role in learning about the strategic goals of our campus partners. The better we understand our partners priorities the better positioned we are to explore strategic collaboration to support the success of international students. Additionally find professional development opportunities - internal or external - where you and colleagues from diversity & inclusion offices, student affairs units and/or faculty can learn best practices for collaboration for fostering a climate of belonging for international students. One such opportunity is Diversity Abroad's Strategic Leadership Forum, a unique event that focuses on partnerships for advance inclusive support for international students.


Develop Diversity & Inclusion Competencies 

Like every aspect of work, to be more effective with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion we have to continue to learn. While there are broad diversity and inclusion competencies that are applicable for any field of work, acquiring such skills specific to international education positions professionals in our field to advance the practices and policies that help foster a climate of inclusion and belonging for international students.


What you can do:

While it's important to celebrate different aspects of diversity, celebrating or appreciating diversity in and of itself is not enough to advance the systemic change needed to build a climate of inclusion and belonging. Acquiring and continuing to hone diversity & inclusion competencies will position you to develop and implement practices and policies that advance this important work. Check if your institutions offers diversity and inclusion training and take advantage of these learning opportunities. Add diversity & inclusion related books to your reading list. Do you prefer listening over reading? Here is a list of podcasts focused on diversity & inclusion. If you want to hone your diversity & inclusion competencies specifically for the field of international education consider attending sessions specific to international students at the annual Diversity Abroad Conference or enroll in the International Education Diversity & Inclusion Certificate Program.


We’ll be ill-suited to help foster a climate of belonging for international students if we're unaware how their intersectional identities impact their experiences on our campuses. 


Stay Abreast of International Students' Experience on Campus

International students have a unique lived experience at our colleges and universities. Similar to efforts in education abroad to ensure onsite staff are aware of the experiences diverse students face while studying abroad, it’s important to gather data - quantitative and qualitative - on how campus climate is viewed through the lens of international students. We’ll be ill-suited to help foster a climate of belonging for international students if we're unaware of their lived experiences on our campuses.


What you can do:

Explore if your campus’ climate survey captures insights from international students on their experience and allow such data to inform practices and policies for supporting the success of international students. In addition to campus wide climate surveys, partner with other campus units, particularly diversity & inclusion offices, to host focus groups with international students to better understand their experiences and how they can best be supported. Finally, consider opportunities for international students to serve as peer advisors to other international students and provide forums for peer advisers to share trends regarding international student’s sense of belonging on your campus.


Classroom Climate & Curriculum

Part of fostering a sense of belonging for international students on college and university campuses involves internationalizing the curriculum.  When course content, materials and assignments are developed with a globally diverse student body in mind, international students and their cultures are a part of the learning environment, which helps foster a sense of belonging. Further, the general climate of the classroom, from professors making a conscious effort to properly pronounce the names of international students to domestic students engaging with international students on projects, helps build a classroom climate that is welcoming.


What you can do:

The movement to internationalize the curriculum is predicated on the goal of ensuring content, materials and assignment include sources that reflect the international and interconnected nature of our 21st world, similar to calls to decolonize curriculum focuses on including diverse voices and perspectives in classroom materials. As a starting point review the American Council on Education's work on Internationalizing the Curriculum and share pertinent information with individual faculty members and department chairs. Consider hosting a panel discussion to allow international students to share with faculty how inclusion of their cultures into relevant content and assignments impacts their sense of belonging. Finally look for opportunities to support faculty on best practices for welcoming international students in the classroom. It’s important that faculty are aware that for some international students English is their second language and/or learning styles may be different from the U.S. higher education academic environment. 


While most of this article has focused on fully matriculated international undergraduate and graduate students in the United States, the principles are applicable to inbound exchange students and young people participating in work-and study-based exchange programs anywhere in the world. As international educators we cannot protect international students from a societal climate that may foment xenophobia or racism. That said, we can work to build a climate of inclusion and belonging on our campuses for international students and ensure that they don’t only hear #YouAreWelcomeHere but also truly feel they belong.