By Iqbal Ahmed
Millicent Machell’s brave and forthright account of Durham University’s privileged student culture is an inspiration for this article. In this narrative, my hope is to counter-reflect Machell’s experience and everyday lives of the ‘poshest’ and ‘blondest’ students with the diaspora of international postgraduate students, particularly those who are from the Global South and faced with encountering the anxiety of isolation and alienation of being a student in a city far from their own.
These apprehensions are not just different but also can be similar to that of the students from privileged backgrounds. In Machell’s view, the anxieties of deconstructing identities emerge from the necessities of reaching beyond a culture of privilege. Similarly, fitting in with others remains an everyday struggle for many international students, trying to adapt to the unfamiliarity of Durham’s homogeneous heritage and searching for ways to reach out to their own communities at the same time.
‘There was a time when I did not talk to anyone from Friday to Monday because I did not know any one,’ says an international postgraduate research student (PGR) who wishes to remain anonymous. ‘It was extremely emotionally challenging for me.’ I asked them how they dealt with that. ‘I took charge of my emotional state of loneliness by persistently trying to meet people within my department and outside of it,’ the PGR said. ‘I went around and asked people if they wanted to be my friend’, they added. ‘Were you successful?’ I pressed on. ‘No, but I remained hopeful although I did not have any expectation,’ was the reply.
Durham’s long and cold winter months also cause an anxiety of isolation, which force many international students to stay indoors with limited social interactions. According to the anonymous student, the coldness of the UK can be linked with the metaphorical perception of ‘cold’ British people who can be polite but not welcoming. ‘People do not say it explicitly but it can be obvious.’ The sentiment of Muzzammil from Malaysia offers a relevant insight into the alienation of international students in the local community in Durham. ‘Honestly, we cannot adapt to this culture fully. Why don’t they listen to us more?’
We cannot adapt to this culture fully
Paying attention to cultural integration and assimilation remains an area which can be difficult to resolve all across the board. Muzzammil suggested that students who struggle with the English language can benefit from tutorial sessions more geared to learning ‘informal’ English. He also added that a ‘match-making’ family hosting scheme for the duration of postgraduate studies could be beneficial, giving them a chance to ‘mingle closely with the locals’.
The issues that international students confront at Durham represent an inevitability of their conscious decision to come to a foreign country. As much as it is the responsibility of this institution to offer a space of comfort and confidence, the students also need to do their best to assimilate. To confront isolation and alienation, students must actively seek to socialise with other people, the anonymous PGR advised. ‘Go to the pubs – they are the best places to meet people’.
Photograph by Kleopatra Olympiou