The PGCert ISAS: Are you ready for it?

Blog for members
15 August 2019
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2019-20 is the final year of the UKCISA/ Nottingham University PG Cert in International Student Advice and Support will run.

We talked to Echo Zhou who graduated from the PG Cert ISAS in 2018. She has worked as an International Student Adviser at the University of Warwick from 2014. Since graduation she has been promoted and is now Senior International Student Adviser, managing the advising service for all international students (including EEA students).


What attracted you to the PG Cert ISAS?

I had been an international student adviser for three years, an international student administrator for 2 years and an administrator at Admissions for five years when I started the course. I had worked for 10 years at Warwick in the same big open plan office (which covers half of the 1st floor in the administrative building) and had never had the opportunity to step out of the day-to-day job to reflect on what we do, why we do it and what’s next, in a structured way, backed by academic research. 

When I learned about the course at a UKCISA conference I was immediately attracted to it because this is the first and possibly the only academic qualification at Master’s level which is specific for ISAs. I had been looking for qualifications at Master’s level - more and more jobs advertisement nowadays ask for a postgraduate qualification – and so this felt like an excellent opportunity. I was fortunate that my department agreed to financially sponsor me which made it possible for me to take up the course.

I had a few concerns especially surrounding my ability to cope with the course during busy times but after talking to a few people, I felt reassured that the course was co-devised by an insider who understood the peak time for ISAs and so had purposely timed the modules to avoid the double stress. 


What had you studied prior to the PG Cert ISAS?

I did a BA at the University of Warwick in Social Studies. 

What did you hope to get out of the course? 

I had advised on a few complex international student cases (including some ongoing cases) where I felt it was difficult not to make it personal. Sometimes there was clear injustice within the immigration system and students were vulnerable, and there was nothing much I could do to change the outcome. I hoped the course would help me better deal with this sort of dilemma. Also, I was hoping to meet with colleagues in similar roles and build a stronger professional network. 

Which module did you get the most out of and why?

The first module on cross-cultural communication was something that I was familiar with - I had co-delivered the intercultural training to staff members at Warwick for two years and had explored the topic during a few recent Erasmus staff trips. However, it was never explored specifically in the context of advising international students. 

This module gave me the material and space to reflect on how much of a role culture plays in giving immigration related advice to international students especially when they are in distress, and how to achieve the most optimal cognitive and the emotional outcome in this cross-cultural communication, as well as the impact such an outcome could have on the student, and on me as their adviser. I wrote the assignment using a case study – the assignment gave me the space to read more widely and articulate my reflection, and I was pleased to receive a high mark for this! 

The last module on Managing Complexity is probably the one that contributed the most to my professional growth. This is all about the ‘big picture’ – how do you position yourself in the context of your institution strategy and how to increase your ability to influence. ISAs are typically not at a level where they feel they can significantly influence institutional policy and can feel powerless and resentful (especially when services are reduced). 

Like many other universities, we have had recent restructures and things felt unsettled, and the advice service had contracted to the core areas to cope with the workload. This module helped me piece my observation and reflection together, and I wrote an analysis to review the strategic positioning and service delivery of the Immigration Service team in the context of recent trends in immigration policies and the institutional strategy. This helped me re-evaluate the value of the service, the scope of the service, how it came to that, and how the service could tap into the institutional strategy. So in this way it proved very useful to boost my confidence and my career development. 

How did you fit study in with your full time work?

I am not going to lie – it was challenging! As with any academic study, the weekend attendance at Nottingham is just a small part of it, and much time was devoted to reflection, reading, and writing the assignments. I’d advise people to talk to their manager and ask if they can get some study leave- a few of my classmates did and that really helped with essay writing. I struggled with the first assignment the most, as it was due just after Christmas and so you need to be really organised – you could feel miserable confining yourself to the reading and writing when others around you enjoy a relaxing time at Christmas. But it’s all worth it! 

How has the course benefited you?

Looking back, as well as the space for personal reflection and growth, this course also gave me the grounding and a better understanding of the ‘bigger picture’. As a result, it increased my ability and confidence to try to influence my managers when the value of the service was questioned. I was promoted shortly after finishing the course and I have been managing the advice service confidently since. I also built a good network of colleagues that I can talk to when new challenges appear. I feel much better connected! 

Do you have any advice for members considering taking the PG Cert?

It is a residential course but you are free to decide where you want to stay overnight. I would recommend staying on campus – if budget allows, the conference rooms are really nice and you get the opportunity to socialise with your classmates!

Get a Whatsapp group with your classmates in the first module- you will feel more connected and the peer support is much stronger this way. 

If you do not work with international students directly at the moment, the course might feel a bit irrelevant but it can be an opportunity to get an insight into the lives of an ISA and open a new career door! 

The tutors are all leading practitioners in their field and more importantly, they are all very personable and lovely! 

Are there any reasons not to take the course?

The more you put in, the more you get out of it. This course offers much opportunity for soul searching, reflection, empathising and re-evaluation. Your personal experience counts. Don’t do it if you are not ready for it!  

Find out more about our PG Cert in international advice and support. Deadline for applications is 17 October but we recommend you apply asap!

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