by Meredith Dault
November 5, 2010
When international students come to Queen's, they often find they have more than a few new things to contend with: a new city, a new country, and a brand new academic context, all (oftentimes) in a new language. But if incoming international students find themselves having trouble adjusting, it's usually for one simple reason: cultural differences.
"A number of years ago we saw evidence that a lot of the problems that international students seemed to be having in adjusting to life at Queen's were cultural," explains Cathy Lemmon, International Programs Advisor with the Queen's University International Centre (QUIC), "and it was related to not knowing the nuances of Canadian behavior." According to Lemmon, students didn't understand things like the subtleties of participating in a group. "It's quite different in, say, Asia, or in a country like Turkey," she explains, "and it was in these types of situations that students were having difficulties."
That's why QUIC's Director, Wayne Myles, began researching strategies for ‘intercultural competency based learning', eventually landing on a program developed by psychologists at the University of British Columbia, the University of Canberra and Griffith University, the latter two in Australia . Lemmon was trained in the spring of 2009, and began facilitating programs for new immigrants and international students not long afterwards.
The resulting Cultural Skills for the Canadian Context workshops, part of the School of Graduate Studies Expanding Horizons workshop series, take new students through role playing exercises that allow them to experience a number of different ‘key competencies' in different situations -- from dealing with conflict and disagreements, to making social contacts. "The way it works in the graduate school series," explains Lemmon, " is that the sessions turn into informal Q&A sessions. New students arrive and they are trying to get a lay of the land." Lemmon says incoming international students are often stumped by small details -- like why Canadians say ‘hi, how are you' as a greeting, without really stopping to hear the answer. "That was just one of the things we had to think about that had been burning in someone's mind," says Lemmon with a smile.
The three-session workshops -- which build on one another -- always include a handful of domestic students who participate as cultural interpreters. "We also ask international students who have been here for awhile to join in," says Lemmon. "Because they have their feet on the ground and they can be a resource as well."
Lemmon says the workshops have proved to be a great way to help incoming students build community at Queen's. "Watching everyone bond in the group, and seeing them exchanging email addresses and restaurant recommendations at the end of the three sessions...it is really community building right off the mark. They felt like they had a good support system in place in the people they met through the program." Lemmon says that once bonded, the group will often take ‘field trips' to places like Dairy Queen, a local ice cream store, to practice their newly acquired skills. "They go there to practice things like approaching a stranger, or asking for help," she explains with a laugh.
At the end of the day, Lemmon says that everyone learns something. "Some students will come who will say ‘I've been here awhile, but I still don't understand this!'...nobody is the expert. Even the domestic students had fun, thinking about things another way!" Lemmon says the QUIC staff definitely aren't the experts at these workshops: "the students are definitely creating their new culture for themselves!"
Contact the Queen's University International Centre for more information,