International and or Mature students – walk a mile in their shoes.

I’ve always liked that joke – you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes, then at least you’re a mile away and have his shoes.

It’s a funny take on the idea that you should always look at things from another person’s point of view. This is important, I think we’ve become desensitised to tragedy in lots of ways. I don’t think people get enough Vitamin E – Vitamin Empathy. Think of all the situations where a faceless electricity company (just an example)  shafts you, but you know that if you could just talk to a person you could straighten out the mess you’re in. Or when you see stuff about disasters on the news, and you know you should feel bad, you know you should be reaching for your debit card, but you don’t. You change the channel.

I have to make a confession. I’m one of those people who struggles to care – to the point at which I strap on my holster and take the law into my own hands – about the trials and tribulations of other people. I’m not a total robot, of course I still care and work hard to make the lives of the people I love easier etc. In fact, the only reason I am attracted to politics is that it seems to most effective way of making the most number of peoples’ lives better. But I will admit I change the channel on DEC appeals convincing myself I already give enough money to charity as it is. That make me sound callous and uncaring but my take on it is that looking after one person is hard enough as it is and that if I’m to spend my time doing it for someone else, they better be my kid and grow up to be a neurosurgeon.

I want to return to the idea of understanding where someone else is coming from, the shoe exchange idea. I’m going to place this in a University context, I’m always more comfortable in that situation given my background.

International and Mature students are a wildcard in the student cohort. They aren’t students Universities are traditionally built to serve (with notable exceptions like the Open University) it’s like repurposing a golf cart to work as a bus for school children. It might work, but not well.  They can tell you that it’s not working too. Being treated as a second class citizen and (in the case of International Students) paying 3-4x the fees of a home student, for the privilege. As for mature students the sense of isolation and ‘not fitting in’ can be intense. Much of academia works on the basis of being judged or reviewed by your peers, do you really think a  lower middle class 30 something mother of two from Leeds, let’s call her Figure A, is a peer to a 18 year old young adult from an upper middle class family from London (Figure B)? Really?

Maybe we should insist that the latter takes a sensitivity class about the former. Or that we give Figure A  a 10% grade boost to compensate? Even worse, how about everyone else in the class gets a 10% grade deduction?

…Or maybe we should put Figure B, in Figure A’s shoes?

At this point I’d like to reveal myself as the model for Figure B. I took some time out of University to work for my Union so, after starting in 2006 (it being 2010 now) I still haven’t  graduated. My time in the Union led to many situations where I had to work in the best interests of people I didn’t know or understand. You can survey and focus group all you want but without actual, concrete experiences you’re just making informed guesses much of the time.

At aged 22 I took a semester at the University of California, Berkeley, and it wasn’t until a good friend of mine reminded me, but actually, I was a mature, international student myself. Despite having English as my mother tongue and being used to certain aspects of the American culture I was essentially still in the same situation as students from India or Taiwan or Germany and, for want of a better phrase, in at the deep end. Bewilderment became the emotion de jour. From academic cultures and infrastructure to everyday stuff like buying laundry detergent it is incredibly tiring and frustrating working out and thinking out every action and it’s reaction. The absence of any background information to a town you’re staying in leaves you feeling like you’re lost, physically. Not that the University didn’t try hard, but the history of Berkeley wasn’t what I was looking for. So, why did the ATMs keep charging me to take out money? Where could I buy a stamp? What time do supermarkets close? Where could I find running shoes? How does tipping work? Why do the buses sometimes run on schedule and sometimes not? Back in Leeds or London these would be hardwired into my cultural psyche. You grow up with a Tube map tattooed onto your fore arm and a rough idea of how much things cost comes as standard. I imagine I had it considerably easier than many students from countries with very few or no cultural and historical links to the USA. Riding public transport became an exhausting exercise in constant vigilance against homeless people, missing my stop or getting on the wrong train. The energy exerted in acclimatising to a new culture was immense, I found myself tucked up in bed by 9pm most nights in the first three weeks. I have now come with a deep and profound respect for students, particularly those from what we might consider non traditional backgrounds, who go to other countries, especially where there is a language barrier, to study.

They take on so many trials, not just in learning in their chosen field but also learning English, academic and conversational, as well as acclimatising to the new surroundings, making new friends, occasionally getting a job, seriously…. are they superman or something? I could barely do half those things and I was working beyond maximum capacity.

The question of capacity seems to be the answer, we should be building international and mature students’ capacity to be effective. We should be giving them the tools to navigate an increasingly complex (often different to that they are used to) academic and cultural world. We shouldn’t be patronising, in fact respect is a key part of that relationship, but Universities (and of course Students’ Unions) should be in a position to offer (or enable or facilitate) another layer of guidance that goes beyond a handbook or a freshers fair.

Now we come to the point where I should be suggesting what that is, but in fact I’m unsure myself. If you were to ask me how it might best be done I would say as a natural, gradual process through friends and colleagues. This capacity should be built with the willing help of people we know and like. It shouldn’t be done by an administrator behind a desk or a student officer with 30,000 other students to worry about. It should be personal and experiential. The best way to come to understand the academic and cultural traditions and norms of a University or a city should be by experiencing it with friends who are willing to explain what things are, how things work, and where you can buy laundry detergent.

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