“I want people to appreciate the diversity that we have in Durham”– an interview with International Students’ Association President Elena Meier, part two

Elena Meier and I conversed about the problems that international students encounter in Durham and the contribution that the international community makes to student life.


Luke Alsford: From my own experience, as an exchange student in Germany this year, I have noticed that international students tend to stick together at university. Do you agree that this is the case? What are your thoughts on it?


Elena Meier: There is quite a lot of hurdling together of students. It might be because we feel most comfortable around students who are going through similar experiences to us and it is really easy to relate to someone who’s also moved to a new country, speaks different languages and so on. I think it’s also to do with what you are used to. I went to an international school and a lot of my current University friends also went to an international school, so it is also that we are used to that kind of atmosphere. For, this is probably why I float towards similar people, but I also have friends that are British and grew up here in the UK as well. I think that the division is becoming less prevalent: colleges do run different events where people mingle together more. There are plenty of international students, as well, who throw themselves into British culture too. I think it is also personal preference. For example, if you’re interested in kind of learning more about the culture here, then you might throw yourself into it. But if you’re more reluctant to, then maybe you’ll seek out the people who you feel most comfortable with and who kind of relate to you most. 



LA: What is your general diagnosis of the biggest challenges that international students face? We have already touched on housing and international fees.


EM: When you arrive: the culture shock. It can be a completely different culture that you don’t know, and everything to do with the culture: the food, the way people speak and general interests. I think a challenge is just getting used to that. and then the second one is. The housing issue here is unique to Durham and that’s quite a big concern for students at Durham. You are thrown into this rush of signing a house within three weeks of arriving here. And you think, “What am I doing? I don’t know if I want to live with these people! I just moved here, how do I know who I want to live with?” Because living with someone is different from just having someone as a friend, you are committing to a whole year of living with that person. For international students specifically, if you don’t have a UK-based guarantor, then you either have to pay a big chunk of the rent up-front, beforehand, or you need to get an international guarantor. There is a company called Housing Hands, who the University have liaised with and have offered to act as an international guarantor, but it is also still an additional cost for them to act as your guarantor. So, that’s another additional fee that goes on top of the expensive international fees as well. Another challenge is just being away from your family and your friends. In the beginning, a lot of students feel alone because they haven’t found made close friends. It is important to know that there are so many students who are feeling the same way as you. For many, the first time living away and then being so far away from family for many students and not having that support bubble that you’re used to is definitely a challenge. 


ISA’s Exec, 2021-2


LA: Looking at the figures, 30% of the Durham population are international students, and the aim is for 39% to be international students eventually. What are your thoughts more broadly as to how Durham, as an institution and as a place, benefits from its international community and the diversity it brings?


EM: That’s a tough question! I think international students bring so many new perspectives to things, which is probably a very broad statement to say. But, within each department, within each course, I think when you when you sit in a tutorial or sit in a discussion-based class, you will have more of that breadth of perspective when you have people from all across the world, because of their experiences and their background and their upbringing. International students bring together more perspectives and more opinions, which is always a great thing because you learn so much more when you have different ideas.


How have you felt? How much have you been able to interact with other international students? How do you feel that it contributes to Durham?


LA: I think it is always interesting to see education from a different perspective in a different country, as every country will have a different take on the curriculum and how things are taught. I think it’s adds to a vibrant university environment, when there are international students who bring with them different cultural backgrounds. Especially when you are abroad for just a year, like I am on an exchange, then you have more energy to get out and do things and I think that adds to the broader university atmosphere. 


EM: To add on to that, I think when you have international students come in, you also have these different perspectives and it enhances your learning experience, because you’re learning about different cultures, different things that people do around the world. It allows students to experience a little bit of a different country or different culture, without having to actually go there. Each international student is bringing a part of their upbringing to the university and so that’s making it that much more diverse.



LA: A lot of international students have at the back of their mind, that after their exchange year here or after their degree, that they then have to go home, and all of a sudden, they are hundreds of miles away from where the last three years of their life were and where their friends are. How does this influence the international student experience?


EM: It is very unique to everyone because everyone has their own thoughts about where they want to go. For me personally, I knew that I wanted to stay here for a bit longer, so my experience will be extended. I definitely do reflect that it is incredible that I have the opportunity to be able to stay or to go. I know some students don’t have that opportunity with work visas and that kind of thing. I’m always really reluctant to say anything on behalf of international students as a whole, because it’s really difficult to be able to represent everyone. It’s very much unique to a lot of people. I would hope that a lot of students try and make the most out of their experience here, because it is only like three or four years and you can make such great connections with people that remain long-lasting friends for the rest of your life. You hear so many stories about people who met at university and they still know each other 40 years down the line. I think that’s something that everyone should picture and look up to when they go to university.



Image: Andrew Butler on Unsplash

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