#You are welcome here: Helping International Students Feel A Sense of Belonging in the Classroom

Author: 
Hleziphi Naomie Nyanungo and Emtinan Alqurashi

The unique backgrounds, experiences and perspectives that international students bring to the class can enrich the learning experience for everyone in the class. However, if the students do not feel a sense of belonging in the class, they are not likely to share their stories and perspectives. In this blog, we share some practices that will help you foster a welcoming learning environment for your international students. Please note that while the focus of the blog is on international students, the strategies discussed will foster a sense of belonging for students from all backgrounds.  

Being aware of our own assumptions is the first step in supporting a sense of belonging in international students, as they will often guide our interaction with them. Some assumptions we make about international students and their learning can do more harm than good. Here are some examples of assumptions we should try to avoid and what we can do about them: 

  • Language proficiency/Accents: While some international students have limited proficiency in English and will need your support, it is important not to assume that students with non-US accents are unable to articulate or produce high quality work. It is also important to keep in mind that the great diversity in the international student body comes with a wide range of proficiency with English, so do not assume all international students are English language learners.  To these students, statements such as “oh wow, your English is so good” or “when did you learn to speak English so well?” are actually not compliments. In fact, they can be seen as condescending.  

  • Culture: Don’t assume that everyone should understand US specific cultural references (e.g. pop culture.) Be sure to explain and clarify, and if appropriate, invite others to share examples in other contexts, if they are comfortable doing so.

  • Quiet participation: When international students have low participation in class discussions, do not assume disengagement. They might need some time to process language or new information. They may also feel shy about speaking aloud in a large group setting. Providing opportunities for brief reflection, small group or paired discussion, and alternative ways to participate can benefit not only international students but domestic students as well. You can support their learning by using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles (multiple ways for engagement, assessment, and providing information). You could, for example, provide closed captions during videos, or record lectures, put oral prompts on a slide, ask them to share their ideas or thoughts in different ways, use polling in class to check for understanding. 

A welcoming environment is where students feel valued, cared for, and a sense of belonging. It is the foundation for active engagement and participation for all students, including international students. Here are a few things you can do to create a welcoming environment for your students:

  • Be transparent: Communicate in both oral and written form that you value all perspectives and voices in the classroom. You could, for example, explicitly say at the beginning of every class that ‘every single person in this class’ is welcome in this space. Provide clear expectations for class conduct and class participation. This is particularly helpful to international students who may be coming from educational backgrounds that are vastly different.  

  • Get to know your students:  Your students will feel cared for when you are genuinely interested in them as individuals, and not just as international students. Ask your students to complete a survey at the beginning of the semester to get a sense of students’ backgrounds and interests, and any information they would like to share to help them engage better with the class. It is also a good idea to invite students to meet with you during your office hours before they need help. 

  • Learn your students’ names: While it is understandable that it may be difficult to pronounce names that are unfamiliar to you, your students will appreciate you making the effort. If you don’t know how to pronounce a name, ask the student to help you. This article explains why it is important to learn your students' names and offers helpful strategies for learning names. 

When taking class attendance, some teachers will ask only students with names unfamiliar to them ‘where are you from?’ While often well-intentioned, this question does not create a welcome environment for international students (or other students from underrepresented communities). For the student who is asked this question, the message to them is ‘you are not one of us.’ To foster a welcome environment, you should learn the names and allow the story that comes with those names to emerge organically in the course of the semester.

  • Invite students to share their perspectives without singling them out: Singling out is when a teacher asks a student to speak for their race, religion, nationality or any other identity group. For example, asking an international student to respond to a question like ‘how does this work in your country or global region?’ puts the student in a position where they have to represent an entire country or region. You should instead frame discussion questions that invite all students to share their perspectives and experiences. This article provides helpful suggestions for engaging with international students in ways that would make them feel welcome.

Finally, learning in a diverse classroom prepares both domestic and international students to become global citizens. Creating an inclusive and welcoming environment can help us overcome learning barriers and bring all students together. If you’d like assistance with making your course more inclusive and welcoming, please contact us at cat@temple.edu or make an appointment with one of our pedagogy specialists.

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Hleziphi Naomie Nyanungo and Emtinan Alqurashi are Director and Assistant Director, respectively, at Temple University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

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