Building an inclusive and supportive international student community

Blog for students
01 February 2022
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As the first cohort of #WeAreInternational Student Ambassadors end their term, we’ve sat down with them to reflect on their experiences. The #WeAreInternational Student Ambassador programme is UKCISA’s student network of global future leaders. We are proud to work with and learn from our Student Ambassadors to help deliver a vision for a world-class international student experience.  

Yunyan Li is a PhD candidate in Social Policy at University of Bristol. As a student from China, Yunyan is passionate about building a more inclusive and supportive community for international students in the UK. Committed to this goal, Yunyan has spoken on international student wellbeing at both the Westminster Higher Education Forum 2021 and the Globally MindEd Conference 2021. 

Alongside her role as Student Ambassador, Yunyan has been a PGR Faculty Rep and a Student Quality Reviewer at her university. Her dedication to improving the international student experience drives her active participation in these roles. Reflecting on her time as an ambassador, we discussed her thoughts on student wellbeing services, her role in boosting UKCISA’s WeChat presence, and her plans for the future.  

How did you become involved with the #WeAreInternational Student Ambassador programme?  

I had been a PGR Faculty Rep at Bristol, but I realised that there was so much more I could accomplish beyond being a Faculty Rep. Speaking to my international friends at other UK universities, I discovered that there are universal issues we all face. Instead of waiting around for these issues to be solved, I wanted to actively help solve them.  

UKCISA’s Student Ambassador programme interested me because I felt that we could shape it into whatever we wanted it to be. It was an exciting prospect.  

“Instead of waiting around for these issues to be solved, I wanted to actively help solve them.”

You mention that there are similar issues faced by international students across the country. What are some of these key issues?  

I think a major struggle is the communication gap on key concepts between students from different countries. Sometimes the way we define a certain word in our home country is not the same way it’s defined in UK culture. For example, ‘security’ or ‘harassment.’ I think this challenge can lead to wellbeing struggles for international students.  

Another challenge we face relates to the logistics of being an international student, such as the visa process or sorting accommodation. In my home country of China, the renting market is different from the UK, and we don’t have the same process of finding privately rented university accommodation. I think international students need more practical support from their university to teach them how to adapt to British culture. 

I know you’re passionate about wellbeing. What do you think needs to be improved in terms of mental health support for international students?  

We need to have more open discussions about what wellbeing means and what it looks like for international students. The student community is very diverse, and they know best about how they feel and what they need. 

Student counselling services and residential services are mostly university-led, and while they are really helpful, I think that they should be more student-led. We need students’ perspective, engagement and lived experience to improve the wellbeing support provided.  

“We need to have more open discussions about what wellbeing means and what it looks like for international students.” 

Alongside working to improve student wellbeing, you’ve been active with helping boost UKCISA’s presence on Chinese social media. Can you tell me a bit about this project?  

I met with UKCISA to discuss how we could position them as a formal and accurate information provider on Chinese social media, like WeChat. WeChat has different Chinese associations for universities, but most of them play a role of peer support. It’s important that UKCISA has a presence on Chinese social media because they do not only provide support for students, but they are a source of reliable and accurate information that students need.  

I hope that this promotion of UKCISA on WeChat will continue after I’m no longer an ambassador. It would help a lot of prospective Chinese students.  

 Now that the student ambassador programme is coming to an end, what’s next for you?  

 Once I complete my PhD, I think I’ll try to stay in higher education. I like the inclusive working environment, and more importantly, I feel I could do more to improve the international student experience.  

If I’m still in the UK, I’d like to continue supporting international students. I’d be working towards the same goal I am now, just as a staff member rather than a student. I’d like to try to promote policy change in my university and improve international student wellbeing support.  

Find out more about the #WeAreInternational Student Ambassador programme