Volunteer to assimilate

Chinese students in the UK are keen to get work experience, and it would help them to integrate, says Bin Wu

February 27, 2014

There is a strong desire among mainland Chinese students for work experience and the chance to communicate with local people

There are now nearly half a million overseas students at UK universities, but their fellow students could be forgiven if they have not noticed.

Students from mainland China have unfortunately come to symbolise the problem of poor integration of international students into the social fabric of their host countries. So-called “Chinese Phantoms” are defined in the web-based Urban Dictionary as “international university students who are usually from China or East Asia…who live in halls of residence with other students and stay in their rooms all day, don’t socialise (apart from at Phantom gatherings) and often don’t even introduce themselves to fellow flat mates”.

Some may argue that this reflects a wider problem: that the Chinese diaspora has not become part of mainstream society in many host countries, and that native populations often regard Chinese communities as impenetrable.

As a Chinese scholar who has worked in UK universities for the past decade, and seen an explosion in the number of Chinese students coming here to study, I have observed some of the problems that can result from a lack of integration between home and international students. For overseas students, it can have a negative impact on learning, well-being and even mental health.

Standard explanations often point to language and social-psychological barriers and cultural differences, but we wanted to dig a little deeper. So last summer my colleagues and I surveyed 162 of the more than 4,000 Chinese students now living in Nottingham (up from fewer than 500 in 2001) in an effort to find out more.

More than 80 per cent of those from mainland China confirmed that their main friendships were with fellow Chinese from similar backgrounds, and only a quarter said they were friends with UK students (although students from places beyond the mainland, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, were far more likely to establish friendships with local and international students, perhaps reflecting their upbringing in more open societies).

But our findings also point to a possible solution.

The survey revealed a strong desire among mainland Chinese students for both work experience and the chance to communicate with local people. Their motivations are practical – it will look good on their CV – and intellectual, in that they believe they can learn something valuable from Western society and apply it to a Chinese context. However, the majority said they did not know how to go about it and less than half – 40 per cent – had managed to find any work experience, paid or voluntary.

Of course, it is not only international students that would benefit from work experience. It is a need that universities and local communities must work together more generally to fill.

Academic staff could do more to tie in their teaching modules with what is happening in the local community. And councils and universities could do more to establish schemes to provide students with internship opportunities in council departments and community bodies.

Schemes could pair up UK and overseas students in the same organisation, encouraging them to work together and support each other in forming relationships in a professional environment.

Universities would have to monitor the success of these schemes closely, of course. My research into university-community partnerships has found that one of the most common complaints made by community organisations is that student commitment to volunteer placements is often poor. They may embark on the task with enthusiasm but when their workload increases as term progresses, attendance dips and projects can fall apart. Unsurprisingly, this means that community partners can be reluctant to repeat the experience the following year.

But if schemes are properly managed, it stands to reason that in the face of sweeping budget cuts, councils would welcome the assistance of well-educated university students, both from the UK and overseas. The resulting improvements in cross-cultural understanding would only benefit our collective economic, social and cultural lives.

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