A Sense of Belonging: How the Let’s Talk Series Promotes Mental Well-Being, Community, and Learning in International Students
Going Glocal: International Education Week is a series celebrating the partnerships that International Student Support (ISS) shares with colleagues and units across RyersonSA, all in support of students studying internationally from around the world. This year, the Canadian Bureau of International Education honoured ISS for their Glocal Links program by awarding them the Panorama Award for Outstanding International Education Program.
International students encounter unique challenges such as language barriers, acculturative stress, cultural adjustment, and being away from loved ones (Dipeolu, Kang & Cooper, 2007). Research has shown that international students tend to underutilize counseling services for a number of reasons: cultural stigma, fear of sharing personal information with others, discussing mental health problems which may appear on their academic record or have implications on their future job prospects (Tung, 2011).
These results speak to a broader issue of how do we in student affairs promote and increase accessibility to mental health supports for our international students. Additionally, it highlights the need for initiatives that educate our international students about the value of mental health counseling, addressing the stigma and barriers, normalizing receiving support and emphasizing to students that mental health information is held confidential and protected.
Adjustment to university life can be demanding, layering on challenges due to cultural differences, ranging from buying groceries, how to address a professor in class, travelling to school, adjusting to the cold climate. Upon arriving in a new country, international students are away from their primary supports of family and friends. These experiences can bring about feelings of loneliness and frustration. Furthermore, not recognizing the emotional and psychological impact of cultural adjustment can leave international students vulnerable to mental health challenges.
Having a connection to others and feeling a sense of belonging can have such a significant impact on an individual’s mental health and well-being. Reflecting on the unique needs of international students it became evident that an initiative to promote accessibility to mental health support was needed. We recognized early on that referring students to resources was not enough; rather, fostering mental well-being and learning could be facilitated by creating community and bringing counseling supports and resources to the students themselves within the community of International Student Support.
Within #RyersonSA, one thing that is evident is we try not to work in silos. International Student Support (ISS) and the Centre for Student Development and Counselling (CSDC) continue to work together to support the mental well-being of Ryerson students. We do this in many ways, including having the CSDC counsellors provide students information regarding mental wellness and stress management at our orientation events, provide mindfulness workshops, training for mentors on self-care, the monthly Let’s Talk series, where students learn about supports and resources on campus, normalize seeking help, and addressing barriers to counselling.
The Let’s Talk series is a monthly event which involves informal group discussions facilitated by ISS peer mentors and ISS students. Counsellors from the CSDC attend the event add value by facilitating discussions and providing helpful resources and information for students. The event addresses student mental wellness by addressing topics such as worries about academics, cultural nuances in social interactions, establishing relationships, increasing mental health awareness, and identifying beliefs that serve as barriers to reaching out for support (e.g., “We don’t talk about mental health,” “Personal difficulties should not be discussed with outsiders.”). Furthermore, students learn valuable coping strategies and information about how to maintain mental wellness and experience a culturally respectful dialogue of the barriers and stigma to seeking support.
Sense of belonging is a human need that we all share, whether it be with family, friends; at school or work; or even on social media. Feeling that you belong in a community is important during challenging times, is an important resource for coping (i.e. social supports), and to be successful in academic, personal, and professional pursuits. For international students coming to Canada, finding where you belong in a new city, in a new home, can be challenging.
With the Let’s Talk Series there were three visible communities being formed:
Community among student attendees
What we were hearing from students is that they wanted a supportive community, one that comes together to create structured events around important topics.
Integrating domestic students is vital because almost all international students go abroad hoping to engage with the culture they’re living in. In a recent survey by the Canadian Bureau of International Education (CBIE), they asked more than 3,000 post-secondary international students at 25 universities and colleges across Canada about domestic student friends, 56% of respondents reported having no Canadian students as friends.
Most international students we spoke to expressed that they wanted more Canadian friends. So, we addressed this need by inviting the whole Ryerson community to this event, whether they are international or domestic, and having a student team that had both international and domestic students. This allowed an exchange of dialogue between the international and domestic students to learn from each other and hear shared or unique experiences. We found that it effectively increased connections among peers and received positive feedback from students.
Community among students and professional staff
At the Let’s Talk series we invited professionals such as counselling, to attend the event allowing an opportunity for students to meet these professionals, know their role, form relationships, and ask questions, which they may have avoided due to stigma and barriers.
The program also created a space for student leaders to model the discussions from the professionals that were taking place in their own day to day, or when they are supporting their students.
Community among mentors organizing the event
Having students involved meant students had a voice in the decision making process in the event. It empowered students and had a direct impact on the students facilitating the event and the students attending the event’s experience.
During the event, student leaders would facilitate the conversation, by sharing their experiences and challenges to the students making it more relevant and relatable to students attending. We found that it formed better relationships and easier connections. It not only helped the students attending the event but it helped student facilitators with their communication skills, and to share and hear different experiences amongst each other, thus being a two way learning experience.
In Student Life, our mission is “To empower people so they realize their infinite potential.” An important question as Student Affairs professionals is how do we empower students so they can thrive throughout their journey at Ryerson?
We strive for students to leave each event knowing more about supports and services available on campus, building a connection to professionals, promoting mental well-being, finding connection amidst loneliness , learning strategies for personal wellness and developing self-awareness and self-knowledge.
Our Let’s Talk Series event highlighted our #RyersonSA Pillars of mental well-being, community, and learning. It highlighted for us, as SA professionals, the need to meet students where they are and consider innovative ways to get supports and resources to students who may be less likely to reach out. The collaboration between the Centre for Student Development and Counselling and International Student Support through the Let’s Talk series event highlights the importance of partnership and fostering community within student affairs to foster community, learning, and mental well-being among our students.