Cultivating Community for your International Students
By Yewande Akintunji & Andrea Waughtel, Resident Assistants, Houston Baptist University
Just imagine: You walk into a place where you do not understand the people. You cannot read the signs. People do not understand you when you explain what you need or how you feel. Your friends and your family are in a different part of the world, and there is no one familiar around you. There are rules to be followed, but you do not know what they are. People pass by you, and barely acknowledge you; maybe people do notice you and become frustrated with your questions or cannot understand you. Hopefully this image gives you a taste of what your international students might experience.
As you know, a super RA cultivates community. With international students, it is important to do this not just within your own culture, but also through your culture and the culture of all your residents.
We believe that the following three areas should be considered in interactions with international residents to cultivate community- Communication, Accommodation and Involvement.
Communication - As we all know, communication varies among cultures. In communicating with some international students, a RA might need to talk slowly, rephrase their sentences, be careful about word choices, carefully make judgments on conversation timing, etc. A typical example we have seen is with our international students who come here to learn English. When communicating with them, we have to speak a little slower (not louder). Remember not to make assumptions about how they will communicate with you based on their name or where they come from. Not all international students are non-English speakers.
Accommodation - One of the goals of a super RA should be to always welcome all residents. A super residence life staff should seek active ways to accommodate their international residents taking into consideration who they are as an individual and where they are coming from (culture, climate etc). The goal in trying to understand this is to make your international residents as comfortable as possible.
Involvement - One’s college experience is enhanced by involvement on campus. Being in a new place takes anyone a lot of time to get used to but it usually takes a lot longer for international students due to differences in culture. Therefore, international students may be disconnected from others outside of class. A super RA has to be intentional about knowing their residents and in essence getting them involved around campus or the community in which they live as much as they can. An example is taking them to your school’s basketball or football games or asking them to go to a movie with you.
One thing we have found helpful concerning different cultures is some background… knowledge about those that we will meet. As an example, the summer before Andrea became a RA, she traveled on a mission trip to China for two months. The quarter before she left she had to do a 10-page research paper for an intercultural communications class. Obviously, she researched China. The research about China’s economy, family structure, history, culture, and etiquette was very helpful. She learned much about the culture that helped her understand things that she actually experienced. Although YOU, as a RA will not be the one in a foreign country, it will help you understand your resident better, and if you learn about their culture, you will appreciate their culture more. It will make it easier for you to make conversation. Most importantly, it will help them to feel more at home, more understood, and more welcome.
It is not necessary to do a 10-page research paper to learn a bit about your resident’s home country. Some resources that could be helpful:
Most international students are excited about the opportunity to share information about their home country and culture! They are your greatest resource! Ask them teach you a few phrases in their language; or, do a bit of research and surprise them by trying to say something in their language. Offer to take them to a restaurant from their home country. Ask them to show you pictures. Be a student of international students. They will respect you more as a RA, but more importantly as a person and a friend.
About the Authors
Yewande Akintunji is currently a Resident Assistant at Houston Baptist University and is originally from Nigeria. She is a second year RA in the women’s residence hall. She is majoring in Business Administration, Accounting and Economics and also enrolled in the masters of accountancy program. Besides being a student and a RA, she is the President of the African Students Association at HBU, student leader of Students In Free Enterprise, a Sunday school helper at her church and a small group leader for 8th & 9th grade girls at her church.
Andrea Waughtel is in her sophomore year at Houston Baptist University. She is from Houston, Texas and is studying Pedagogy and Communication. She enjoys being a RA because it is an opportunity to invest in the lives of women and a place where she has fun. She enjoys the challenges and does her best to learn and grow through the difficulties. She also appreciates meeting a variety of people and personalities. Andrea spent two months in China during the summer of 2006 and has enjoyed investing in the lives of women from different parts of the world.