During your time at university, you will encounter students (and lecturers) from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and countries. In this section, we highlight some of the differences you may notice on campus.
While coming to university in Britain can be a new and sometimes baffling experience for international students, British students may face a similar cultural surprise. In school, you may have encountered people from ethnic minorities and of different faiths, but maybe contact with international citizens was a rarer occurrence. This section of UniLife is here to help with your awareness of the multicultural nature of university life.
During your time at university, you will hear a wide variety of languages spoken on campus. Of course, there will be English and Welsh. There will be various European languages. And, thanks to large student populations from India, China, Nigeria, Pakistan and other regions of the world, you will occasionally overhear conversations in languages that sound rather more unusual to your ears.
One of the key things to realise is that this is not usually the result of impoliteness or rudeness. Students do not speak a foreign language to exclude others – they speak the language they feel most comfortable with. Sometimes, it can also help reduce homesickness. If you find yourself among a group of international students, and you feel excluded from a conversation because the language has suddenly moved away from English, do mention it, and in most cases they will return to using English to include you.
Foods and manners
If you share accommodation with international students, you may encounter different cuisines and habits. Asian or African cooking may smell different from the food you’re used to at home, for example.
Ideally, this should be great fun. You could exchange a few recipes and discover a new favourite ingredient or two. However, sometimes there are problems. If you are annoyed by your flatmates, you should politely raise the issue so they are aware of your discomfort – just as you should with British flatmates and any problems you might have with them. Otherwise, they might be entirely unaware of any problem. Maybe that cheese could be put in an air-tight container, and maybe those curries could be cooked with better ventilation. Of course, this works both ways, and if your cooking hogs the oven for a few hours every week, you may also be asked to adjust slightly, just as, for example, a vegetarian flatmate might ask you to be considerate in your preparation of meat.
Finally, there may be different table manners. In some cultures, using your left hand for eating (or handling money) is considered extremely rude, whereas in Britain, it’s not even noticed. Some cultures frown on the idea of talking at the meal table, while others see meals as social occasions. Some cultures use forks and knives, others chopsticks, others spoons, and some have a preference for finger foods. Do be prepared for the idea that people do things in different ways, and don’t automatically assume someone’s manners are poor because they are different from what you’re used to.
Religion and politics
People can be quite sensitive about their beliefs and convictions, regardless of nationality and heritage. With that in mind, it is no surprise that the diversely multicultural environment of a university campus can be home to a wide variety of faiths and viewpoints, some of which may be ideologically opposed to each other.
Expect to find people you disagree with at university – British people, international people, from all races and all faiths. Just as importantly, expect people who will agree with you, from all nations and faiths. Don’t assume that stereotypes are always true, and that people’s opinions are predetermined by their cultures, faiths or nationalities.
The best advice is to not get into arguments if and when you do disagree with someone. By all means, have polite and informed discussions with people you know and respect. Cultural exchange and diversity is all about understanding and communicating different points of view. But perhaps turning a social chat with someone you’ve only just met towards some of the most contentious issues in society is not the best way to go about this. Use your common sense – get to know a person first, discuss controversies later.
Studying in a foreign country is always a difficult decision. It can be very expensive, and the distance involved often means that contact with families and friends at home is very restricted during that time. Many international students aren’t able to return home over the holiday periods. It is not a decision taken lightly, and in most instances it shows a strong dedication to the ideal of widening one’s horizons. Most international students return home within one year or less of completing their courses, so they have only a very brief time to enjoy the friendly and welcoming atmosphere that the UK offers.
Having a large international student population means that the University is part of that atmosphere, and we take pride in that. As a centre for learning, the intercultural exchange that occurs on campus is a valuable part of the student experience both for internationals and for home students, and we’d like to encourage all students to make the most of that opportunity.