Structured peer-to-peer support needed for international students, urges IEAA

The trans-Tasman study, produced in partnership with Education New Zealand, found that education providers did not appear to have been particularly active in prompting students to provide peer support to other students.

The gap in institutional support allowed a large majority of Australia and New Zealand domestic students to become much more aware of the issues faced by their international peers during the pandemic, particularly in relation to practical hardships associated with living away from home and social isolation.

Around half of domestic students surveyed said they were concerned with the challenges faced by international students who became isolated during the pandemic.

The report noted that domestic students were “primarily informed by media coverage and to a lesser extent friends”.

“The research reveals positive sentiments our domestic students have towards their international counterparts”

“While we know education providers were actively providing support to international students in very trying circumstances, domestic students seem not to have learned much about international students’ experiences through their studies or other contact with their institution,” the report reads.

The study found that most of the common forms of support offered were learning support, peer support (e.g. buddy schemes), social networking and mentoring support. This included assistance with psychosocial support, study support, and help to access material support.

Included in the study were verbatim responses from domestic survey participants, showing a glimpse into how the ‘peer to peer’ support organically unfolded – ‘I noticed the need to start a group with friends’, one said, others adding, ‘I just offered help on my own accord’, ‘With a friend who had mental health issues, I helped them almost every day including several crises’.

The responses present a valuable insight to the lived experience of international students during isolation and how domestic students were inspired to help. 

“Last year was very tough for most people, in particular international students in Australia, who were among the most vulnerable groups in the community,” IEAA president, Janelle Chapman, acknowledged.

“I am proud that the Student Voices research reveals positive sentiments our domestic students have towards their international counterparts. I hope this research will encourage institutions to support and strengthen the ties between these cohorts.”

The report found that 82% of the 1,313 Australia and 981 New Zealand citizens reported in a change in attitude to the sense of separation and isolation international students face, while 81% suggested their appreciation of students’ challenges of living away from home had changed.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, international students, like domestic students, experienced financial hardship, social isolation and uncertainty about the future. However, the lack of access to family, friends and government support turned international students into some of the most vulnerable groups in the community.

While the study found Australians excelled in helping international students with resilience and practical advice, New Zealand students focused more on enhancing social connectedness.

“In New Zealand, we often talk about the importance of the Māori value of manaakitanga – hospitality and generosity – when it comes to hosting international students,” ENZ chief executive, Grant McPherson said.

“I am very pleased to see that domestic students stepped up and demonstrated their manaakitanga. I’m proud to say that New Zealand’s inclusive, welcoming communities remain a cornerstone of the excellent student experience we provide to international students.”

Led by Rob Lawrence, Student Voices was conducted via a two-phase research design, which included interviews with key educational stakeholders and government agencies, alongside a survey completed by 4,300 domestic and international students at 15 universities and five TAFE institutes in Australia and four universities in New Zealand. 

The results pave the way for a new perspective in terms of how international students can become better immersed into campus communities”

“This project is one that I have felt particularly privileged to have worked on. The results pave the way for a new perspective in terms of how international students can become better immersed into campus communities and feel equally recognised and valued as their local’ counterparts,” said Lawrence.

As the international education sector looks to enter a post-pandemic phase of recovery, this report signals the willingness of domestic students to engage with international students more meaningfully.

It has highlighted the need to support greater ties between the domestic and international cohorts and encourages institutions to consider more structured approaches to fostering peer-to-peer links to enhance the student experience for both their international and domestic students.

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