What matters most: Togetherness in INTO’s U.K. centres during COVID-19

Although the INTO London World Education Centre building is closed to in-person gatherings, students and staff look forward to the time when they can return.

More than two months ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced formal lockdown measures to combat the rise in new COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom.  For many in the U.K., that announcement signaled the start of physical distancing.  However, Qingying Lin, Chinese-language support officer at INTO Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), recalls that her centre had moved all face-to-face learning and extracurricular support online by March 18—five days before the PM’s announcement.

INTO’s 10 other U.K. centres transitioned to digital provision along similar timelines, which means that they have now passed 10 weeks of distance education and support of their respective international student cohorts.  Perhaps paradoxically, what has struck our student support teams most during quarantine is the togetherness they and their students have maintained across that distance—a testament to their agility and resilience.

Since the start of quarantine, INTO’s student support staff in the U.K. have focused on different ways in which they can foster connectivity between themselves and their international students despite physical distancing.  Where academics are concerned, educators at INTO QUB “started delivering classes online via Microsoft Teams” once the University initiated physical distancing protocol, explains Lin.  Using MyINTO and Bongo Learn, they have also provided students with supplementary materials and assignments. 

With this two-pronged approach, Lin and colleagues have sought to provide equal online learning opportunities to students who remained on campus as well as those who traveled home in the middle of the pandemic: 

“We understand students’ need to travel home, but we want to make sure students who travel home do not suffer any academic disadvantages,” Lin says.

Integral to ensuring that all students stay on track: frequent communication with and tracking of those who did choose to leave campus.  Since the beginning of lockdown, the INTO QUB has run bi-weekly Q&A sessions for their students around the globe, and at least one staff member has been in daily contact with each student.

“As a centre, we are working closely across all teams to ensure that we know the whereabouts of all our students,” confirms Aine McComb, Head of Student Services for INTO QUB. 

The INTO QUB team has worked around the clock to ease not only students’ concerns, but those of parents on the other side of the world who have entrusted the centre with the care and education of their children. “We have had messages back from parents thanking us for looking after their children and helping support them, especially if they have travelled home,” says McComb.

Similar to the INTO QUB team, staff at the INTO London World Education Centre have held virtual drop-in sessions while running a virtual welcome desk and remaining in constant contact via phone, e-mail, and WeChat.  This shift to digital provision was no easy feat, as Mona Patel, head of student services at INTO London, attests:

“The centre has had to adapt very quickly, and staff have had a steep learning curve with the new mode of working.”

Challenges such as this one, posed by the COVID-19 crisis, however, have been met with staff cooperation and determination to stay the course. “Teachers and staff have really supported each other and students during this period, so the quality of teaching and support remains at an excellent level,” Patel says.

At the same time as they have been working agilely to ensure continuity in students’ learning, INTO centre staff have been inspired by students’ own flexibility and sense of community during these unprecedented times.  “Our students have been so understanding and supportive with measures taken by the centre due to the COVID-19 situation,” says Lin.

McComb has been struck not only by the ways in which INTO QUB students have banded together, but by their commitment to supporting the local Belfast community:

“It has given me hope to see the students face the challenges together while we go to online learning,” she says.  “We even had one student who gave a supply of face masks to the local hospice in Northern Ireland.”

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis has posed unprecedented challenges to international education.  However, it has also prompted those upon whom international exchange depends—educators, student support staff, and, most importantly, international students—the chance to prove their strength and commitment to the spread of ideas around the world. 

As Patel sums up, “Whether it be staff or students, people have adapted and taken all the unprecedented changes in their stride.  It shows a sense of resilience and speaks to the old adage, ‘Keep calm and carry on.’”

JP Deering

Author: JP Deering

Partner Development and Corporate Communications Coordinator JP joined INTO’s partner development team two years ago. Before joining INTO, JP taught English and composition to international students at the University of Kentucky. Now, he manages INTO’s corporate blog and social media, writes about international student mobility trends, policy, and the goings-on at INTO’s university partners in the US, and handles outreach to potential partner universities and corporate engagement at major conferences.

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