The challenges in being an international Muslim student
A group of international Muslim students, studying in health areas at the University of Newcastle, contributed their experiences during a focus group. At the time of the focus group, they had been students of the University for 1 - 3 years. The following information about their experiences is presented with the students' permission.
What did these students identify as the challenges they experience in the academic environment?
Understanding how to relate to academic staff
The students reported they had been used to listening to teachers and were not used to communicating directly and asking questions freely of academic staff. They had rarely been expected to make decisions about their learning in their home countries and questions from academics such as 'What should we do now?' were surprising to them. Discussions between academics and students and activities such as role plays were extremely rare. In lectures, where there were large numbers of other students, it was especially uncomfortable for them to ask questions of academics.
Interacting with other students
The students identified Problem Based Learning (PBL) situations as particularly challenging. PBL requires students to interact, share opinions and be assertive in group discussions. (The challenges for them may be related to cultural understandings of taking turns in conversations rather than interrupting or could be associated with confidence in using language.)
The students identified they had difficulty in expressing opinions and ideas in case they were wrong. This led them to feel limited in what they had to contribute to discussions. For some, being asked to raise critical questions and put forward ideas was difficult and resulted in the students showing confused or unusual behaviour.
The students reported it was difficult finding the confidence to speak in a group. Speaking in front of a group for the first time was regarded as very difficult, but once this was done for the first time, they reported that it became easier.
Making social connections
Students expressed their struggle with making social connections in a mixed group of international and domestic students. In these circumstances they often resorted to mixing with other international students.
Being in a social gathering where there is alcohol
Students expressed fear of being in an environment where there were intoxicated people. They were fearful of unpredictable behaviour they associate with those who are intoxicated. Avoiding the social event is the usual strategy adopted by the students in this situation, so that they do not come into contact with intoxicated peers. They reported that when feeling 'forced to integrate' and attend social functions the problem is exacerbated.
What advice did they have for academic staff who are teaching international Muslim students?
Provide pre-departure sessions where possible
Pre-departure briefings were regarded as particularly helpful when they involve senior students who could present information about their experiences and mention strategies they had adopted for overcoming challenges.
Develop social contacts with peers
Facilitate opportunities where students can get to know their peers before the commencement of the academic program. Students reported they would have welcomed the opportunity to chat informally and to have become more comfortable with peers before they commenced their academic program as they believe this would have assisted them to participate more fully in the classroom. The students believe language challenges would improve if they felt more comfortable with their peer group.
Offer structured team building sessions prior to the commencement of the academic program
Allow new students to group together for support
Involve students in discussions
Students requested that academic staff adopt the practice of asking them their opinions directly and then waiting for their replies. Drawing them in to the conversation and encouraging them to speak was also regarded favourably. Students reported that they need to be continually encouraged and invited to contribute.
Give new international students time and space
Students commented that it was very important to allow new international students the time to process what is happening around them and to respond when they are able.
Facilitate the link between new and senior students
Students perceive that links between new international and senior domestic students would be very helpful. (There may be a need to facilitate these links.)
Ensure international students are aware of support services, such as Counselling on campus
Ensure international students are comfortable with practical exercises before they are asked to participate
Students reported that this is especially the case where the exercises involve students of the opposite sex touching or linking arms. Students suggested that staff ask the students before the exercise how they feel about participating and then invite their feedback after the exercise has been completed.