BELMAS Blog

Community in a Time of Crisis: Fostering Support for Displaced Students

16.04.20

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Authors: Peter Wolstencroft and Xue Zhou, Coventry University

As the crow flies, the distance from Coventry to Beijing is 5,054 miles, but for many Chinese students, isolated from their families and support networks in the UK, the actual distance is immaterial as they have no way of returning home until the COVID-19 crisis has eased. Out of 120,000 Chinese students studying in the UK’s HE sector (HESA, 2020), the majority remain here after the Chinese government’s decision to limit the number of flights into the country and the UK government’s directive on social distancing (Cabinet Office, 2020).

The UK Higher Education sector has rightly received praise for its reaction to the crisis (Wonkhe, 2020). As well as changes to teaching, educational leaders have put in place measures designed to ensure that students are not disadvantaged. These have included the cancellation of examinations, the introduction of no-detriment policies and the extension of deadlines to provide students with extra time for their studies.

These measures have undoubtedly been beneficial in supporting the academic needs of students and helping to alleviate some of the anxiety they face, however, other ‘one size fits all’ support mechanisms, which often focus on social media such as Facebook, Instagram or email has failed to engage the Chinese community of students. This has meant these students have lost confidence in the system and have felt isolated.

Chinese students’ engagement in support mechanisms provided by the university has always been relatively low due to language barriers and limited accessibility to Western social networks. Instead, they prefer to share anxieties, insecurities and concerns to people they view as trusted and respected. Their first option for this is their lecturer, which is in line with Chinese traditional culture that states: Respect and honour the teachers (尊师重道). 

At Coventry University, there are around 1200 Chinese students still in the city and to help these students a new support network has been set up using the Chinese social media platform, WeChat. The ubiquity of WeChat in China can be demonstrated by the fact that it has over a billion users and is used for messaging, making payments and translating. To utilise this popularity, a WeChat Group was set up dedicated to supporting students and giving them direct access to tutors, leaders and fellow students. Initially it consisted of 5 lecturers and one leader from the School of Strategy and Leadership and was promoted by word-of-mouth. Within 7 days the group had over 300 members and it continues to grow.

The founder has used many culturally specific ways of engaging students within the group. The concept of gifting red envelopes was used from the start and questions relating to students’ courses have been posed to engage members. The leadership team has made sure that announcements to students are put on the forum first and students are able to ask questions directly to both the leader and lecturers if they are unsure of anything. In a very short space of time the group has grown to a stage where there are hundreds of interactions each day and discussions have moved away from questions about academic matters to discussions about day-to-day life under lockdown when you are many miles from home.

As the days turn into weeks since its inception, what is noticeable is the way in which the group has evolved from a forum where students could ask people from the university questions, to a genuine community where students feel able to share both their academic concerns but also their personal concerns about living in Coventry during this time. Lecturers are finding that they need to intervene far less as students solve problems themselves. Questions about how to get transcripts, re-sit exams and degree classification calculations have been answered without the need for an answer from academics. Some students have even taken the initiative by supporting fellow students. This includes preparing notes on using referencing software, supporting students in preparation for re-sits, and even warning about spam emails or phishing phone calls.  These wider discussions have deepened the impression of an evolving community where everyone is supporting each other through this time of crisis.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and there remains uncertainty about the future, the WeChat forum has provided credible support and reassurance for students currently unable to make the 5000 miles return trip back home, so much so that many have cemented their willingness to come back to study in UK in the future.


Dr Xue Zhou is an Assistant Professor in the School of Strategy and Leadership, Coventry University, UK. Her research interests fall in the area of digital literacy and cross-culture adjustment. 

 Dr Peter Wolstencroft is an Associate Head of School (Student Experience) at Coventry University. He has worked in education for over 20 years and has a particular interest in enhancing digital literacy. 


References

Cabinet Office (2020) Staying at home and away from others (social distancing) available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/full-guidance-on-staying-at-home-and-away-from-others (accessed 10th April, 2020).

Higher Education Statistics Agency (2020) Higher Education Student Data available at https://hesa.ac.uk (accessed 10th April, 2020).

Wonke (2020) Could universities’ COVID-19 response help us be more inclusive? Available at https://wonkhe.com/blogs/could-our-covid-19-response-help-us-the-sector-more-inclusive/ (accessed 10th April, 2020).

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