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Trekking, shopping and to the opera: Varsities overseas work hard to welcome students

In countries such as China, Denmark, Germany, universities have welcoming committees that help foreign students settle in, navigate local customs, languages and cultures.

education Updated: Oct 19, 2017 19:18 IST
Srishti Sharma
Teenage students with their teacher at an outdoor location.
Teenage students with their teacher at an outdoor location.(Getty Images)

In the 2000s, if a student wanted to go abroad to study, they’d consider the USA, UK, Canada and perhaps Australia. And who could blame them? The nations had English-speaking populations, highly developed industry and their cultures were easy to understand.

Between 2010 and 2011, nearly two lakh Indian students went abroad to study, says a report by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics and the Institute of International Education. Over the last few years, however, countries like China, Germany and Denmark have been emerging as attractive destinations in which to get a degree.

For students, this is undoubtedly a richer experience – a chance to spend one’s learning years in a lesser-known culture and to study in nations that put a high value on education and specialisation.

But it comes with worries. How do you settle into a land when you don’t speak the language? How do you live in towns where the food is unfamiliar, and the people known to be standoffish? How do you find your bearings when the neighbourhood is not what you’ve prepared for?

In many cases, the institutes, students and alumni themselves have been making the transition easier.

WHAT IS IT LIKE?

Arpit Banka, 35, who grew up in Jaipur and pursued a Master’s degree in Business Administration at Aarhus University in Copenhagen between 2011 and 2012, admits that the choice of location was odd. “I was tense, as all the students after landing in a foreign land are,” he says. “I was surprised when students who studied at the university a few years ago arrived to welcome the new batch of students at the airport, and helped settle into our dormitories. They also helped us with our studies.” The gesture, he said made him realise that his decision to pick Denmark was right after all. He is now a Manager Market Intelligence with GEA Process Engineering in Copenhagen.

In most big universities in the US, the towns around the campus tend to be friendly, filled with young people and have a cosmopolitan vibe, which eases the pressure on newcomers. But smaller institutions especially those in Europe and the East tend not to have this buffer. And often, stereotypes about a nation cloud a student’s opinion.

Nino Gelantia, 25, from the tiny east-European nation of Georgia, spent time in China’s Tianjin Normal University between September 2015 and August 2016 to study Mandarin. “I had imagined many things about the city and the country,” she recalls. “But living in Tianjin city and interacting with the Chinese students was great fun. TNU provides language partners to non-native speakers. They are extremely polite and helpful. They help us with the content to study, making superb presentations and movies, all in Chinese. They also accompany us to buy fruits, go shopping with us to the malls and teach us the necessary communication during the long bus trips.”

Gelantia says Chinese-language skills are in high demand back home in Georgia, which commands high salaries too. “I want to travel the world and for that I need money,” she says. “This is the best skill I have. And the feel of this Asian country pulls me. Hence, I am keen on returning to China.”

In some cases, the local authorities chip in too, making orientation easier for those unfamiliar with the culture. Richa Kulkarni, currently working as a procurement coordinator at an American engineering company in Shanghai, China, recalls studying at Tsinghua University in Beijing between 2010 and 2011. The local police gave all foreign freshers a grand welcome that included safety instructions. The university treated them with a visit to the famous Beijing Opera and a Chinese dinner. “As an Indian, back home, I was always greeted with a strange smile when people heard I was flying to China, as we had always thought the Chinese are unfriendly,” she says. “My perceptions changed from the time I landed here.”

In some places, the help extends to the little things too. Shoumya Singh, 28, who studied Engineering in Information Technology in SRH Hochscule Heidelberg University in Germany from 2015 to 2017, says the people went far beyond the standard orientation. “They took all of us grocery shopping, arranged boat rides, trekking and also a city tour which made us comfortable before we even started studying,’ she says.

THE SUPPORT GROUP

Bettina Pauley, who heads international relations at Germany’s SRH Hochschule Heidelberg University, says taking care of foreign students is about more than academics. “We have a very personal and lively mail exchange, phone calls, Skype interviews, constant communication and support in all needed issues from arrival till departure,” she says. “We also have student ambassadors who help on a peer-to-peer basis. If they have their visa sorted in time, students can book accommodation on campus. Otherwise we support them in finding accommodation too.”

At the Tianjin University of Technology in China, Lei Ming, the vice-dean of graduate school is aware that the local culture and life can take some adjusting to. “Language is a big barrier in the beginning,” Ming admits. “But we try to break that by providing Chinese language partners to the foreigners who come to study here.” The language partners are more than translators – they also address cultural differences. “We have tai chi and calligraphy classes for them,” Ming adds. “Tai chi helps them to be fit, and through calligraphy, they learn difficult characters in a fun way that’s easy to remember.”

When it comes to studying abroad, most decisions are driven by the quality of the education available in a particular place. Richa Saklani, managing director of Stoodnt, a career-guidance advisory, says that budget, job opportunities, student-friendly visa laws, local language and weather are factors too. “China is increasing in popularity as a destination,’ she says. “Indian students find the country highly civilised and organised, with excellent education and job opportunities.”

Students looking to study abroad should not only have impeccable academic qualifications, they need to do some homework about life there too. “They should ideally visit the websites of colleges they are applying to and take the ‘virtual tour’ which a lot of colleges offer, to get a fair idea about the campus,” she says. “Reading about nearby towns helps the students to get a feel about that place. Learning local language is a big plus. Familiarity with the local food helps as well as learning to cook some basic favourite food in case cravings strike you.”

Pauley adds that students also need social skills to thrive away from home. “The ability to cope and handle differences in a new culture is of great importance,” she says. “Some students are living away from home for the first time. It is critical that they are aware that there will be a time, when they will feel very homesick – and they must have the strength and courage to overcome it. They should also have some basic skills like cooking and cleaning.”