By Helen Forbes-Mewett, Associate Professor of Sociology, School of Social Sciences

Australian universities are understood to have the highest number of international students per capita worldwide.

Their wellbeing is paramount to the higher education sector. Despite the struggles international students face while studying in an unfamiliar environment, there’s a counter-narrative regarding the many associated positives students feel about studying in developed-world contexts such as Australia – even during a pandemic.

Monash University sociologist Associate Professor Helen Forbes-Mewett, and Dr Ashley Humphrey, a Federation University psychology scholar and lead author on a recent publication, have joined forces to examine the interface of social issues and psychology.

Their research focusing on social value systems and international student mental health reveals the importance of social connections – with family, friends, peers, teaching and other university staff – particularly during the stressful lockdowns in Victoria.

In their work they indicate that the mental health of international students was declining before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and that it was exacerbated during lockdown periods.

The importance of understanding social systems

Associate Professor Forbes-Mewett says it’s important to learn about students’ backgrounds, their cultures, and the social systems to which they’re accustomed.

While referring to the extensive support systems already in place in education institutions and more broadly, she says it’s also important to find ways to best-provide support services that will be appealing and useful for students from diverse backgrounds – that is, the type of support they can connect with.

They’re often looking for tangible service-support outcomes rather than Western-style counselling that encourages individuals to work through the issues they’re facing.

Associate Professor Forbes-Mewett sees this as an area of research to be developed. She accepts it’s a big call, as student cohorts have many cultural components, and source countries are continually changing. But she affirms Australia is well-placed to be a leader in this field.

Her recent study focuses on students’ backgrounds and cultures to understand how people from a collectivist society – where people work together and support each other as a customary practice – find ways to function and stay well in a society such as Australia where there are expectations for individuals to take responsibility for their everyday lives through assertiveness and independency.

This individualistic approach, which is “normal” for those long-established in Australia, tends to be challenging for those more accustomed to a collectivist culture that favours in-group interests.

Many of our international students come from collectivist cultures, and we need to learn more about this concept to be able to see things the way they do.

Maintaining social connections

It seems that key to the wellbeing of international students during the pandemic has been the ability to maintain some form of social connection, including regular online or telephone chats with family and friends.

Of particular interest in the study results was that international students expressed a sense of privilege at being able to remain in Australia (approximately 74% stayed) in relatively safe circumstances, and eventually be back on campus to continue their studies.

Many of our international students come from collectivist cultures, and we need to learn more about this concept to be able to see things the way they do.

Associate Professor Forbes-Mewett noted how happy international students were to be able participate in extended tutorials on campus in this year’s first semester.

“They were very regular tutorial attendees, and always looking for ways to engage,” she says. “I felt that in response to the difficult pandemic circumstances they had become even more resourceful than in the past.”

Back home, many students formerly didn’t have a choice about engaging in the community, but in Australia they can go home and have greater freedoms about what they do. This was appreciated by many, but they also needed to adjust to this new lifestyle, and the pandemic has added another layer – or many layers – of required adjustment.

While acknowledging the many difficulties international students are currently facing, Associate Professor Forbes-Mewett highlights their “resilience, resourcefulness, and enormous contribution to Australia”.

This article was first published on Monash Lens. Read the original article

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