As an international student, moving to a different country to study is an exciting, but also a daunting experience.
We know many of our incoming Exchange and Visiting Students (EVS) may feel anxious before they arrive about a range of issues, such as where to get extra support with their course, how to make new friends and how to overcome cultural or language barriers.
In January 2020 I led a pilot project to support international students starting in Semester 2 before their arrival to help smooth their transition to Bath.
The ‘Pre-arrival Telecollaboration Project’ connected the EVS virtually before their arrival with current Bath students who supported the project as volunteer facilitators. The project also aimed to develop the intercultural awareness of the Bath students.
The pilot allowed us to explore the challenges involved in a virtual student collaboration and to share the lessons we learned with other Faculties who may wish to introduce a similar programme in the future.
There were four main stages to the project:
We gathered information about the existing activities for EVS and surveyed Semester 1 EVS to find out their expectations and concerns at both the pre- and post-arrival stages. Their main issues included making contact with other students, finding out practical information about the University and knowing how to get involved in social activities once they arrived. With this information we were able to tailor the programme to directly meet the students' needs.
We recruited and trained five current undergraduate and postgraduate students to be our online ‘dialogue facilitators’ in Bath.
We filmed a video to promote the project to EVS due to join the University in Semester 2. We then selected 28 EVS from 12 different countries to participate and the Telecollaboration project took place in January 2020. It consisted of regular video calls on Microsoft Teams and weekly discussions on topics ranging from worries about living and studying in a new culture to using English idiomatic expressions. The students also used instant messaging, Padlet boards and online surveys to share their experiences.
We held a welcome celebration when the EVS arrived on campus so they could meet each other and their facilitators in person. We then collected feedback and evaluated the project.
Feedback on the Telecollaboration from both the EVS and Bath student facilitators was extremely positive. They reported that the project helped them develop a range of skills, from digital communication, time management, teamwork and organisation skills to intercultural awareness, all of which will enhance their future employability.
The EVS participants particularly benefited from meeting other students ahead of their arrival and from the chance to find out practical information on life in Bath. Meanwhile the Bath facilitators said they found the experience of helping new international students personally very rewarding.
The Telecollaboration Project gave me a head start on how to navigate around campus when I arrived and the resources available to students. It was nice to arrive at Bath already knowing a few other students and staff. I’d recommend this for any incoming international student at Bath! - Britanny Linn, EVS student from Indiana, USA
The project was not without its challenges. Whilst video calls were the most popular means of communication, Microsoft Teams was a barrier for some participants and we felt more training would have been useful at the start.
Keeping all participants actively engaged for the duration of the project was also tricky. Some activities were more successful than others and we learned that the key was to make them interesting, relevant, easy to take part in and that the facilitators should ideally lead by example. Again, we felt more training would be beneficial here.
Our pilot project demonstrated the enormous value in engaging with international EVS online before they arrive in Bath and the benefits this brought to support their transition and induction to the University. Above all, it gave them a positive taste of the inclusive community they were about to join.
We believe there would be real benefit in rolling the Telecollaboration programme out more widely. Faculties could use their own student ambassadors as facilitators and adapt our model. We would, of course, be happy to share our experiences and learnings from the pilot in more detail with anyone interested in running a similar programme.
Ana Bertolossi is a Foreign Languages Teaching Fellow in the Skills Centre. Final year School of Management student intern Laura Mitchell helped Ana run the pilot.