“International school students are different” – this is a phrase we hear often. And, in some ways, it’s true. In many cases, they are more travelled, perhaps understand several languages and have had amazing cultural opportunities through the privileges of attending wonderful schools. They also tend to be more trusting of others, since they experienced life within a school bubble of similar international friends, close-family settings and globally minded teachers.
With schools closed due to Covid-19, our final year students have quietly slipped away. For many, there was no graduation fanfare, no emotional hugging of class-cohorts and, more critically, no opportunity for schools to consolidate on previous Social Emotional and Life Skills classes. These would have delivered those last-minute messages about managing outside of the school’s bubble; including specific conversations about preparing for life within a different country’s culture, at a new college or university, in the first job or during a gap year - and probably far from their families.
University student support services will no doubt be adjusting their provision to welcome all students either virtually or, we hope, in person - albeit within the constraints of social distancing. However, this year’s international school cohort needs further support, as there could be important gaps in their life-skills knowledge as well as risks to mental health.
Within BAME (black and minority ethnic) communities, “mental health problems are rarely spoken about and can be seen in a negative light”*. Students from “cultures that do not understand or acknowledge mental illness” need to offered services that are “seen as helpful and non-threatening”**. Irrespective of ethnicity, research shows that “just under half of students who report experiencing a mental health condition choose not to disclose it to their university” ***.
Our experience tells us that our departing Seniors will be just as exposed to this issue as any other group, and just as likely to feel discouraged to seek help from unfamiliar health services.
So the question now is, how can we ensure our departing Seniors acquire the skills and knowledge that will contribute to safe, healthy, and positive relationships - ones that shape their attitudes as they transition to their new adult lives? Can we help build sustainable support bridges for them, as they navigate into tertiary education?
To support universities preparing for this international school cohort, they will need to be aware of this likely shortfall; make available extra information sessions and step-up with additional signposting to local services. As an example, in the UK, Student Minds Transition into University guide is very comprehensive at signposting students to help and support services. It would be beneficial for university and country specific information to be collated and shared with all students planning to study there.
Having listened to counselors talking about transition during recent months, through networks such as The International School Counseling Association (ISCA), there is already significant sharing of information resources. As a logical extension of this, a big school group, a national counselor association or even a regional schools’ association could work tactically to pool people resources, too.
Certain universities are targeted more frequently by international students - the same faculty names keep coming up, year on year. One person, from one of the member schools, could be assigned to work with each of the favoured universities. This person would be on-point for Administration communication, keeping fact sheets bang up to date and representing the wellbeing concerns of multiple schools. This person does not replace the local counselors, but they do most of the heavy lifting to get the core information needed by counselors to help prepare their Seniors for life at this specific university.
We believe it is important we initiate an ongoing dialogue with this cohort – much more so than before. The situation we are currently in only exacerbates what is typical in this time of year. As Dr Douglas Ota says, “Covid-19 puts transitions on steroids”****.
Susan March, Susie March Consulting (2020)
* Mermon A., Taylor K., Mohebati L.M et al. (2016) Perceived barriers to accessing mental health services among black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities: a qualitative study in Southeast England, UK. BMJ Open 2016 https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/b/black-asian-and-minority-ethnic-bame-communities
** Silverman, M. M., Meyer, P. M., Sloane, F., Raffel, M., & Pratt, D. M. (1997). The Big Ten student suicide study: A 10-year study of suicides on Midwestern university campuses, USA. Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior, 27(3), 285-303.
*** Craig Thorley, September (2017), Not by degrees improving student mental health in the UK's universities, Institute for Public Policy Research. Page 4 https://www.ippr.org/publications/not-by-degrees
**** Doug Ota, Counselor Chat: Managing Transition Season during the Pandemic (webinar), International School Counselor Association May 8, 2020