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We need to think inclusively when building virtual communities

How a university-based college effectively uses culturally appropriate apps to engage with international students.

par RYAN CONNELL | 11 OCT 22

Our international students often come to Canada with a phone in their hands. Throughout their studies, most continue to use apps they are comfortable with from their home country and in their first language. However, most institutions rely on communicating with international students through channels that are more familiar to Canadians.

Social media strategies at many Canadian universities engage student communities primarily through North American social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and, most recently, TikTok. However, in the case of the University of Waterloo where I call home, a whopping 22 per cent of the undergraduate student population in 2019/2020 held a study permit. Within this segment, 44.2 per cent of our international students hailed from China, a country where most of these platforms are banned.

During my first year in a new role supporting students within my college’s English Language Institute, I naively deployed a Facebook group community to communicate necessary program information and as a way to invite students to acculturate to North American social media. Initially, my acculturative perspective was very narrow; I assumed that given our students’ choice to study at a Canadian university, they would immerse themselves within Canadian culture in all ways possible. I imagined my students would speak English every waking minute, they would eagerly connect with our peer leaders through Facebook, and they would love to come to our social events to forge friendships any chance they could. But I was in for a wake-up call.

As outlined in Student Development in College: Theory, Research, and Practice, by Lori D. Patton et al., we know that “college students of any age interact with technology on a regular basis to communicate, participate in social media, complete course assignments, and engage in digital recreation.” While research on digital experiences and identities of college students grows to better understand and support our students’ “digital identities,” it is obvious that reliance on technology and social media is evolving. As student affairs practitioners, we have a shared responsibility to provide transitional support to our international students entering post-secondary and to provide support in a manner that best meets the students’ needs during their developmental journey.

Evolving from ethnocentric forms of communication

My communication strategies evolved within the second year of my role. I did not drop the Facebook groups entirely (I recognized the value that existed to support students in their gradual transition into North American social media), but I also started working to acculturate myself to the tools most comfortable to them instead.

In the years to follow, this meant paying closer attention to our incoming student demographics. Students spoke of more value in using texting apps to communicate rather than Facebook groups. Within our English Language Institute, this meant adopting the use of WeChat with our Chinese students, LINE with our Japanese students, KakaoTalk with our South Korean students, as well as WhatsApp as a catchment for our smaller student populations. It sounds like a lot to manage but the reception from students was overwhelmingly positive. Students would express their surprise, gratitude, and enthusiasm with our adopted use, acknowledging our efforts as an exceptional strategy to help them feel more welcomed.

By forming texting groups, we were able to immediately create communities where we could communicate program reminders, transitional support resources, and event promotion. Students would also be encouraged to ask questions and engage with their peers. When used effectively, it provided a chance to engage students in conversation and reduce student concerns.

Taking a gradual approach to social media acculturation

Over the past year, we have begun to integrate questions about the virtual support provided into feedback surveys that we administer once our English language learners arrive in Canada, as well as post-program surveys. This qualitative feedback has assured us that the ability to access staff to respond to questions during the pre-departure phase of students’ journeys to Canada and even while they have been in transit has helped to reduce acculturative stress and provide meaningful support.

The use of texting apps as an approach to build community does not mean ignoring Facebook or Instagram completely. Instead, it involves helping our newcomers build the confidence to integrate into Canadian social media more gradually. Throughout our programs, we have sporadically invited students to follow popular social media pages run by the university and our college. We have spent time introducing our students to the values of Facebook groups to access communities for student housing, textbook exchanges, carpooling, student clubs, and beyond. By doing this, our students can make a gradual cultural transition into North American social media channels.

When many of our students come from collectivist cultures, we must recognize the importance for our students to uphold their own cultures, traditions, languages, and norms. We must also recognize how social media and texting are among the many ways our generation communicates culture. By choosing to ignore the social media communities that make up part of our students’ digital identities, we risk denying a part of who they are. When we embrace the cultural complexity of digital engagement and virtual communications and show a willingness to use the social media apps our students use, we take an additional step to build inclusion within our institutions.

This column is coordinated through the Internationalization of Student Affairs Community of Practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact [email protected].

Ryan is the interim assistant director, student experience and housing for Renison University College at the University of Waterloo. Find him on Twitter @ryanc123
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  1. Dr Connie Stevens / 13 octobre 2022 à 11:18

    Ryan, thank you for this article. It is a great reminder to all persons in academia that we need to think globally when ‘speaking for’ or ‘creating for’ opportunities, content and guides for other cultures. We need to include others in decisions which impact them.