Navigating International Student Life at ANU – Culture, Costs and Communication
By Eduardo Caceres-Sandoval
Despite having fallen in recent university rankings, ANU’s time as Australia’s number one university saw the number of international students skyrocket post-covid. International students now make up roughly 25% of the student body, more than at any other leading university in the country.
Transitioning to life at ANU, and Australian culture in general, presents a unique set of challenges for international students. The presence of language and cultural barriers often hinder interaction between domestic and international students. Observer conducted interviews with international students and reps to gain insights into their experiences when first arriving at ANU.
ANU’s website proudly states itself to be a place to “live, learn and make lifelong friends”. However, a common complaint expressed by international students is the sense of isolation, particularly, difficulties in forming friendships with domestic students, especially coming from a non-Western background. Speaking to Observer anonymously, one student remarked how isolating the experience of settling in can feel.
“When I first came to ANU I sat in my room and I was wondering…Why am I here? What should I do next? I feel so isolated…”.
Another challenge that was identified was the experience of speaking a new language, engaging in small talk and understanding colloquial phrasing, all of which are prerequisites to forming friendships that can often feel inaccessible.
Consequently, there is a natural inclination amongst international students to make friends with people from one’s own country abroad rather than branch out with domestic students.
As one student who wished to be anonymous explained “We both speak our mother language…it’s just easier to feel more connected”.
In a bid to avoid potentially awkward interactions, some international students living at Residential Halls opt to eat meals at off-peak hours or to exclusively attend autonomous international student events to establish connections with other international students.
“Our dining hall is…like a big social hub…but for an international student who isn’t used to that it can be really hard for them to feel comfortable. I know…they tend to come at a certain off-peak hour just to avoid anyone else being there”
Another student, Lucy* who’d mentioned their success in forming friendships with domestic students, stated that unless “you’re joining a society or club… it’s quite difficult to get involved with a local group”.
With this being the case, many students also recounted how misunderstandings can arise as a result, with one recounting the experience of being asked where they came from, answering “China”, and the response being “I’m sorry to hear that”, which they found “quite offensive”.
Efforts to address this issue have been made by both ANU and respective International Representatives at residential halls.
When asked what resources were in place to support international students, a spokesperson from ANU mentioned their “Set4ANU Mentoring, THRIVE Community Connect Program and the First-Year Experience program” as instrumental in ensuring international students “find their place in our vibrant community, meet people and make new friends, as well as help set them up for academic success.”
International representatives have also played a key role in bridging the divide between international and domestic students by organising joint events aimed at fostering connections between the two groups. Collaborations between the International Student Department (ISD) and residential halls have been met with success, with mixers conducted in Bush Week having higher than expected attendance, ensuring that International students do not feel isolated in the wider community.
“It’s a culture that can seem a little bit distant for some international students” stated an International Representative from a residence on campus.
One representative argued that what the international community “needed” wasn’t “necessarily integration” but rather “understanding and more so an increased awareness of what international students go through.”
However, it’s crucial to note that this is not an issue shared by all international students.
Observer identified a stark contrast in the experience of Western background international students, regardless of their language background, who espoused the ease of forming friendships.
An English student interviewed stating “people are friendly here. College sports is great…the whole system works pretty well.” There could be the suggestion that the cause of International student isolation is not solely based upon language difficulties, but also, an unabated cultural divide.
Culture isn’t just a product of social interaction, it’s also the food and drinks. As mentioned by an ex-resident who was an international student, hall food is allegedly “catered to Western Tastes…most international students don’t like it”, in addition to being considered of substandard quality. This further contributes to a divide, with catered halls (Bruce, Johns, Burgmann, Ursula) featuring higher proportions of domestic students compared to international.
Also frequently mentioned by discussing with international students was the “culture shock” regarding Australian drinking, most prominent at halls with shared kitchen facilities or catering.
*Names have been changed to maintain individuals’ anonymity.
Observer will continue to cover this series, led by reporter Eduardo Caceres-Sandoval who is leading the analysis of the experience, degree and opinions of international students at ANU.
Graphics by Annisa Zatalini
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