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

The Bubble sat down with Elena Meier and in a wide-ranging interview discussed the appeal of Durham University for international students and whether expectation meets reality when you arrive in Durham.


Luke Alsford: I’m really curious, as a background, why you wanted to come and study at Durham as an international student?


Elena Meier: I wanted to study law and I was quite interested in the common law system in the UK: the actual legal framework that you have here, because it’s a lot more analytical and involves more critical thinking. I’m from Switzerland, which has a codified legal system. I wanted to do something that was more engaging. I also wanted more of the campus university experience. I’d heard from so many people that the UK was great in that you can get engaged with so many different societies and try so many different things. I also wanted to study in a different country for my undergraduate degree and the UK wasn’t too far away. And the universities here also have a very good reputation. Why Durham specifically? Well, I came here on an open day and I loved it. I just loved how quaint it was and how everyone was really friendly. Everyone really likes what they’re studying, but then they’re also involved in so many other things outside of their studies. I loved the collegiate system as well because it really gives you that community and competitive edge between the colleges. The town itself as well, I loved it as soon as I came here.



LA: How did your enthusiasm to come to Durham balanced off against concerns or worries about being an international student that you might have had? Such as potential issues with being an outsider, or the cost of tuition fees?


EM: So, I went to an international school, so I was always around so many types of different people and adapting to different cultures. I was also accustomed to people coming and going as well. So, for me, going to a new country was exciting and even though it might have been a challenge to be away from my family and make a whole new network of friends, that was also exciting. I already knew many older students who had studied abroad and they came back with really positive reflections about it, so I think that kind of helped reassure me that it was a good choice. I do think a lot of students consider the cost of international tuition fees when they do go abroad and if the experience of the degree that you get in the end is worth the money. It’s something that does come up a lot. Sometimes you question with the strikes and everything going on, “Are we actually receiving the education that we’re paying for?” For me, there was no language barrier either. I think that’s something that some international students struggle with in the beginning. If English is not your first or second language, then it can be quite challenging to come to a new country and immerse yourself in that culture.



LA: How did expectation meet reality when you arrived at Durham, and now, after three years here?


EM: Well, first year was absolutely horrible because of COVID. I probably had too high expectations, but I think because of COVID, those were just completely blown up. My first year set my standards super low for second year, because I thought, “If anything could be better than first year, it’ll be amazing,” and it was a lot better. I became a frep at my college and I was able to meet a lot more students. I became the international representative at my college as well and that really gave me the opportunity to help as many international students who were arriving, because my experience was so bad, because of COVID. I tried really hard to make sure that every student had a team to welcome them, because when I arrived I didn’t have anyone there. As International Rep, I tried to make sure that everyone had that welcome experience. I also got involved with other things: my first term was just crazy packed with different things I wanted to try. It was a lot, lot better. It was just great to finally see what the University experience was all about. And then now, in my third year, it’s been great as well because I’ve been able to narrow down exactly what I want to spend my time doing. It took me a while to find a balance between studying and extra-curriculars, but I think I’ve got quite close now. After these past two years though, I’d say that in so many ways, Durham exceeded my expectations.


Elena Meier


LA: Why did you want to be President of the International Students’ Association? 


EM: At the beginning of my first year, I met one of my best friends on a zoom call that the ISA [International Students’ Association] organized during the midst of the pandemic and the two of us got on really well. The ISA were doing elections at the end of that year and the two of us thought, ‘Why don’t we just go for it? We both want to meet more international students.” That was one of the main motivations, that we just wanted to meet more people and hopefully initiate more events for people to meet each other. We both ran for Co-Vice Presidents together and then got it. Then, last year, we started doing more social events and seeing what was possible with COVID still looming. And ever since then it’s just been really nice to meet so many different people from all across the globe. I mean, this year especially, I just didn’t realize how many international students there are! My motivations for becoming President were that I wanted to help as many students as possible and to bring the international community together, to show people that there are a lot of international students. If you’re trying to find someone from your same country, or who speaks the same language as you, you are bound to find someone. I also want people to appreciate the diversity that we have. We organize a variety of different events throughout the year which target the main celebrations or festivals that people celebrate. In November, we have a Thanksgiving dinner coming up and we recently had a Diwali event. This year, it’s been difficult because we realized that each college also has an international community themselves, that also organise things. So, it’s also a lot about collaborating with other societies and colleges to see if we can plan something together.



Luke Alsford: How do you see the role of the International Students’ Association in relation to the support that the University and the International Office offers to international students?


EM: It is a difficult relationship at times. The International Office has changed its role, it is a lot more involved in signposting and getting involved in the administrative side of things. So, when students apply, the International Office makes sure they get all the information that they need. I don’t really know exactly what their role is, I don’t have a definition for them. The ISA are an association under the Students Union and we act as a spokesperson for international students. We are definitely over 20% now of the student population, so having one group represent that is really difficult, because you have so many different people from across the world with so many different views. We are also there to answer questions or queries, for example on housing. The University are trying to do a lot more, I think. They had an international welcome this year in the town hall with county representatives and the Mayor of Durham, which was really nice. I think this is great, but I also believe that because we have so many international students at Durham, there should be more of a focus on ensuring that we have the resources that we need and ensuring that people are more aware of the challenges that international students do face.



Read part two here.



Image: Andrew Butler on Unsplash

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