The issues around integration were discussed in the VALOA workshop for universities. Students’ loneliness and their integration in the university and the Finnish society are a concern for many teaching staff.
In Finland, we have a long history of sending students abroad to gain international experience as well as programs to receive exchange students. International degree students and international degree programs have presented new types of challenges to universities. Degree students’ needs partly differ from the needs of exchange students.
Dervin (2008) points out that there has been an overemphasis on the role of fixed cultures and intercultural communication in stays abroad. Concentrating on cultural comparison can result in an overshadowing of other important elements that also impact interculturality in stays abroad, such as strangeness, perception of one’s personal and social self, social relationships, how one relates to different languages etc.
The VALOA project has also compiled some challenges that students face when learning about life in Finland in addition to solutions on what we can do in the universities to promote their participation in studies and the Finnish society. New English degree programs should carefully consider the terminology and the kind of integration we mean when speaking about international students.
Another issue that needs to be considered is the kind of intercultural competence that is important for university staff. International students construct the world through mobility and relocation, and the traditional notions of culture and identity become less and less important. International students are often well-travelled individuals who “borrow” from numerous “cultures” that belong to an uncountable number of communities (Dervin 2010).
One way to look at the type of integration that is expected from international students is to critically review the informative material for new, incoming students. It is a good idea to check whether there are any cultural presumptions and comparisons included in the information. It is important to provide realistic information about the living expenses, work opportunities, and overall life in Finland and listen to the international students’ needs.
Factors that influence the sojourners’ adjustment to the host culture include background variables, such as language proficiency, gender, age, education level, status, self-esteem, and prior experience from traveling and living in another country. In addition, there are situational variables, such as the length of stay; the information and support provided for social interaction with host nationals; networking with co-cultural, academic, or professional performance; and physical health. The length of stay is an important dimension in the process of adjustment for sojourners such as international students, with discomfort usually reducing as the new culture becomes more familiar (Adler, 1975; Ward, Okura, Kennedy & Kojima, 1998; Ward & Rana-Dueba, 1999 cited in Russel, 2006). International students study together in English and live together on the university campus with less contact to local peers.
International students are, at least in the beginning, short-term sojourners, and the reasons behind their decision to stay in the new host country can vary from their personal situation to how they perceive their opportunities in the Finnish labor market and, ultimately, whether they succeed in finding a job. Students should be seen as an important source of knowledge for the Finnish society. Yet there are many complex challenges facing students who travel to other countries to study.
Students become aware of their own strangeness during their studies abroad, and European students seem to benefit most from a positive image in the host country. They are neither tourists nor migrants, and attitudes toward them are more positive. (Dervin 2010; Murphy-Lejeune, 2003 cited in Dervin 2010). Dervin has developed categories based on the myths of strangeness on how students situate themselves in the new host country (Dervin, 2007b; Dervin & Dirba, 2008).