Reporter 429, 18 January 1999

Notes for a small island: try talking about the weather more

We won't talk to strangers and we certainly don't kiss them. Shaking hands can be awkward but we're among the best in the world at saying No. Eccentric islanders or reserved tea drinkers? In a unique programme, the University Counselling Service is helping international students make sense of British life.

Arriving at university is stressful for most students, but the culture shock experienced by those from a different country can make it doubly difficult to settle. "Many think we're a very rude people," said senior student counsellor Nigel Humphrys. "We don't greet each other properly or talk for very long.

"We have been looking at ways of helping students get used to this cultural change, which will help them both academically and socially."

This year, the counselling service ran a pioneering five week course to help fast-track international students through this cultural aclimatisation process. The Excell programme offered 18 Nuffield Centre postgraduates support and advice with cultural issues and gave them the opportunity to try out the suggestions.

"The programme begins about six weeks into the first term, which is long enough for the students to have encountered some problems fitting in," said Mr Humphrys.

"All the buildings in Leeds look the same and I wasn't confident about asking people for directions so it used to take me ages to get anywhere," said Namibian student Vicky Kambuta.

"But after practicing on the course I was happier about asking for help and found that most people were very helpful when I did."

Counsellor Marian Sedley says that they try and communicate the idea of small-talk to the students, advice that features a topic dear to the hearts of most British people. "Weather, everyone seems to want to talk about the weather," said Wilhelm Akwaake. "Though that isn't too surprising as it seems very unpredictable compared to Namibia."

The time taken for students to navigate their way around the cultural map can affect their academic study, effects felt most acutely by students on one-year courses. "Group participation is expected in our education system but many students from overseas have been used to a very different, more formal, educational setting. Some have never spoken up in class before and we use role playing to get them used to participation in seminars, refusing a request, having a disagreement and so on," said Mr Humphrys.

The programme was piloted at Leeds and the University of South Bank two years ago and is sponsored by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and UK Council for Overseas Student Affairs. The five week course at the University was such a success that other institutions are being encouraged to follow Leeds' example.

"I think one of the strangest things I found was that British people seem to plan really far ahead, everyone I speak to seems to know what they will be doing on a Saturday three months from now. It's very different from Peru," said Ruth Sanchez Vidal.

Mr Humphrys' understanding of the students' problems have been helped by his own experiences as a postgraduate student in the United States. "I don't think I've ever felt as foreign, and they even speak the same language. I think most international students manage extremely well. We just provide the opportunity for them to talk through their difficulties in a safe and secure place."

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