UCL Engineering


Feeling we all belong: improving the experience of Chinese students at UCL Engineering

16 June 2022

A member of the Chinese student community in UCL Engineering tells us about their experience.

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Almost half of UCL students are international, with approximately 11,000 of those from mainland China, so their success and wellbeing are key to the success and culture of every faculty in the university. Johanna Novales and Isabelle Harvey from the Faculty of Engineering Sciences produced a report on the experience of Chinese students in UCL Engineering highlighting issues they face, and gave a series of recommendations to address those issues.

As part of this article, we had a conversation with one of our Chinese students and we tried to find out what their current experience was like and what challenges they face. We asked them about their unique, personal experience as one of Engineering’s many talented Chinese students.

How did you find Engineering / UCL when you came here?

‘It’s really, really friendly. I was lucky because I got to experience in-person teaching before the arrival of the pandemic, with a proper fresher’s fayre with so many societies and clubs. There are hundreds of societies in UCL and there are many other ethnic group societies like the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) like the Indian Society and so on. One big and maybe unique thing the CSSA does is host UCL offer-holders at pre-enrolment events in mainland Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen. The events have presentations and social activities, so people can start making friends. That’s pretty great. Technically, every student coming from mainland China is a member of CSSA, but not everyone is very involved or active. ’

What was your personal experience on the question of inclusion in Engineering / UCL?

‘Well, for most Chinese students, even if they know some English, it’s their first time really interacting in English, so people can feel nervous, but it does get better. For the few people like me who went to an English-language school, for example in Singapore or England, it’s less of an issue. That privilege is an advantage and really creates a difference. I was also pretty educated on the idea of a what being a global citizen is, which helped. UCL is a global university with a pretty diverse student body in a diverse, multicultural city – in fact, UCL is one of the most diverse universities in the UK. That can be difficult to adapt to for some Chinese students who are from a less diverse or international background in terms of race.

That seems to suggest that you think there may be something of a disconnect between home and Chinese students, is that the case?

‘It’s not a little bit, it’s very obvious.’

The FES report on the experience of students from mainland China identified a problem of them not mixing that much with home students, do you think that is the case or not? Do home and students from mainland China make friends often, in your experience?

‘It is a problem, without a doubt. I would say no, they don’t mix much. The faculty does try, like when picking random student groups for project work or seminars so it’s not just one group of students like Chinese students. That’s good for the language also, so they’re not just speaking Chinese together. It’s a tough question.’

Do different cultural norms impact educational and social interactions? What are your thoughts on that?

‘Yes, they do, like when I was in high school away from home they asked me, ‘Tell me about yourself’ and I was stuck for like five minutes, I couldn’t think of anything to say! Chinese students coming here have never done that. UCL has lots of support services available to Chinese students but for whatever reason they are not turning to them, maybe because of the stigma in speaking about anxiety, for example. Also, it’s taken for granted that children just listen to their parents’ decision, so they’re not really taught to think for themselves and make their own decisions to the same degree. One part of this is for students to think about what’s the best lifestyle for them, but it’s difficult, it depends on the person and it’s something that’s going to take time and it can happen really slowly for different people. Online schooling has made it even more difficult, but moving back to in-person teaching should help. So, there’s the linguistic barrier, but there are other reasons for lack of inclusion as well.’

Let’s talk potential solutions and improvements - what do you think might help improve inclusion?

‘I think trying to get home and Chinese students to interact more would be good. Also, it would be good for Chinese students to be aware before they come here that it is very diverse, so they are aware of the benefits of cultural exchange with other students from different backgrounds. So, education on global citizenship and diversity as part of an extended induction for all Chinese students would be a good idea.’

Read our full report on the experiences of Chinese students at UCL. The report highlights a series of interventions to tackle these issues, including: extended inductions for International students (this was successfully trialled with freshers, in association with a member of the CSSA); enhanced guidance for staff; tailored wellbeing guidance; emphasising the confidentiality of all wellbeing advice and support; highlighting staff role models; social integration programmes (including Chinese students providing support as mentors or advisors) and additional language support e.g. with English classes throughout the first term, and conversation circles. This is a report that everyone in the Faculty involved in teaching, student supervision or pastoral care should read. To learn more, read our investigation and the recommendations here.

EDI is always work in progress, a collaborative and continuous process, so do you have any ideas about how to make our Faculty more inclusive that you’d like to share? Have you for example tried extended inductions or other steps? What impact did you see? We would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions! Please get in touch – email v.diaz@ucl.ac.uk or email j.novales@ucl.ac.uk and tell us more.

If you are a student and you’d like to speak to someone about your mental health and wellbeing, there are a number of services that are here to support you, please see the links below.