Supporting international students through a year of COVID-19
Reflecting on a surprising year
As we rang in the New Year just after midnight on 1 January 2020, none of us had any idea what was coming. I thought I knew of course. For the last five years I’d been working at the University of Sussex International Study Centre (ISC) in Brighton, which delivers pathway programmes for international students aiming to study at the University of Sussex, and for the last nine months I’d been fully focused on the student experience.
Our students came to us from around the world, and we did everything in our power to help them adjust to life in the UK; succeed in their education, connect socially and thrive. Then we heard about COVID-19. By spring, some of our students were flying home while others stayed, but everyone was making a once-in-a-career transition to online teaching and learning.
So, as I approach another New Year’s Eve, I consider what I have learned this year, which ends so differently to how it began. How have our students fared, and how might next year be different and hopefully better?
Making a move to a blended and online student experience
Perhaps the biggest immediate challenge of 2020 was the mass shift of so much of our lives and work online. In a few weeks we moved quickly to create a flexible, responsive online service, which gave our students confidence and skills for the future, with student feedback crucially driving online innovation and change.
The ability to listen to students was key. Continuous improvement of our online services and standards ensured our student representative system was effective and sustainable, which allowed us to gain a broader understanding of our students' online experience. We worked together with students on online events, projects and programmes and ensured student representation went beyond traditional ways of engaging via an online environment, that supported students with welfare whilst still being UKVI compliant.
What we learned was the importance of addressing all areas of student support, including:
- Student Services
- Progression Support
- Academic Administration
Moving a complex area such as Student Services online meant carefully considering what we did, how and why. Inductions could be managed and support supplemented by online drop-ins and one-to-one meetings held via Zoom, and in time these would prove popular.
Attendance monitoring also shifted. Students were contacted if they did not engage with the VLE for three consecutive days, with further interventions if this persisted. We set up drop-in sessions for visa or accommodation queries, while welfare sessions sat alongside online personal support.
We also initiated activities which would help students make up for some of their missing in-person experience. An online speaking club ran three times a week, and we held one-to-one tutorials and social activities ranging from Cook Book to ISC’s Got Talent. We may not have all been in the same room, but we bridged the distance in new ways.
It wasn’t just students who connected across the miles. Previously, I tended to work mainly with staff in my own centre, but as the guidelines closed in, my network expanded. Now I meet weekly with my equivalents in Cardiff and Surrey so we can share best-practice methods for real challenges. Our bond is genuine and focused on helping our students - we won’t lose that in the future. Occasionally, we also supported around the inevitable changes in COVID staffing. We worked as one team.
Another way we did this was via our monthly Professional Service Working Group meetings for all UK ISCs. This group had existed before, but I sensed a new urgency as we talked about how to overcome challenges and listened to guest speakers from the network. Where we saw a need we filled it, for example, ISCs pooled resources so social activities could be promoted to students across the Study Group network.
Lessons from the pandemic
Nobody ever wants a crisis to learn from, but there are good things I will take from the global professional development challenge that has been COVID-19 thus far.
- By thinking about students first, we rapidly translated feedback on the Student Experience Group to plan on line activities which I think will still be important after a pandemic.
- We have increased students taking part in "added value" online opportunities, which helps them improve their confidence and to achieve their aims.
- And we have developed new and deeper links with our university colleagues, student societies and support at the University of Sussex.
- We have created an environment where students can stand up and speak out and access appropriate support mechanisms, and we are flexible in how we respond.
- We have identified key transition periods in the student journey and created an environment where students can access our dedicated specific support at this time.
- Most of all though, we have embraced a #OneTeam approach of working together to forward-plan and continually reflect and improve.
- There are far stronger links across the Study Group network, meaning we speak with one voice rather than 18 different voices.
We are sharing best practice as we seek solutions to challenges, and I feel more confident about doing that going forward. Whatever 2021 has in store, surely these learned lessons will help us face any further challenges together.