Imagine for a moment that you have just arrived at university, but you don’t speak the language; everything from the money to the plug sockets is odd, and home is thousands of miles away. This is the reality for many international students who make up about half of the University of Edinburgh’s student population. They arrive in Edinburgh to a barrage of new information: visas, bank accounts, doctors and perhaps most overlooked, social media – which makes relaxing into student life that little bit trickier.
One Edinburgh, an ambitious student-led initiative, wants to remove these barriers. The group is run by a team of student representatives who act as a link between students, the University and the city. They believe that the multiculturalism of Edinburgh masks the deeper structural issues of integration that exist within it. They want to make it easier for international students to get involved in wider university and city life by “developing a better mutual understanding through cultural exchange and immersion”. The team behind the initiative believes this will not only help the international students who come to Edinburgh but will be an advantage to the University and the city by creating a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas, knowledge and experience.
Its founder, Max Browning, is a third-year Chinese and Russian student. He first encountered issues of integration when working with international students through his course. Max pointed out that international Chinese students are often grouped together in university accommodation allowing them to live in a bubble. They can easily “live in Scotland as if [they] are living in China”. To Max, failing to engage these students is not only failing them, not only because they miss out on much of university life, but because it also wastes what could become a valuable partnership for wider Edinburgh society, such as businesses wishing to strengthen their international ties.
One of the most overlooked obstacles to integration are the cultural differences that pervade all aspects of student life. Most recently One Edinburgh launched a campaign to promote the use of WeChat within the University. Much of our western social media is censored in China and so WeChat is their biggest platform. Yet when these students arrive in Edinburgh, it becomes redundant as most communications from the University, societies and other students are on other platforms they may never have never used. Something as simple as establishing a presence on alternative social media sites would make it easier for international students to engage with wider university life.
The initial idea for One Edinburgh started in February 2020 but it has taken months of groundwork to finally launch the initiative last semester. They already boast affiliations with 27 international university societies and leading figures in Edinburgh’s political and commercial life. It started at society level, explains Max, because this was the most effective way to directly engage with large numbers of international students who could then explain, from first-hand experience, what were the biggest issues to integration. They have since identified a large amount of disconnect between individual societies and have started to promote inter-society engagement through joint events. For the next academic year, they plan to expand their reach through sports societies. This will allow people “to put cultural differences aside while playing the game” and form deeper connections outside of academic life.
The initiative goes beyond helping foreign students to settle and is also focussed on changing the wider student mentality. As Max explains, “there needs to be a greater cultural understanding amongst the whole student body. And I think the only effective way to even begin to understand, and therefore have respect for, another culture is to engage with people from that culture.” He believes that greater cultural understanding and cooperation is important for our generation and the key to solving many of the largest global issues we face, such as climate change. The desire to open a diverse conversation requires participation from all students at the university – widening individual student involvement is next on their agenda.
Much of the initiative’s work over the last year has been curtailed by COVID restrictions however the pandemic has also caused deeper problems. The lack of understanding and cultural awareness that already existed has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the uncertainty it brought. Max fears this has created an ‘Us vs Them’ mentality, evidenced by the cases of harassment suffered by some Asian students on campus last year. The mutual understanding which One Edinburgh works to promote will therefore be more important than ever in the post-pandemic world and beyond.
Image: One Edinburgh