Family is important to international students. Source:

Family is important to international students. They’re a pillar of emotional support, they pay your fees and they miss them constantly. On the other hand, they also sometimes drive them mad, makes these students feel like their tuition fees are a source of burden, and feel guilty for spending their parents’ hard-earned money.

These are some of the sentiments captured by a new report by Sheffield Hallam University on an international student’s relationship with his or her family.

Essentially, it’s a complex picture.

Firstly, let’s take a look at how international students perceive the term “family”. Compared to home students, they’re either extremely close to family or extremely distant from them.

And closeness, though usually associated otherwise, does not always turn into positive experiences. At the same time, being distant with family isn’t always a bad thing, either. They both had positive and negative consequences.

“When (it) is distant I miss them, when I am with them, I want to leave and ‘open up my wings’,” a survey respondent said.

Researchers also asked these three questions: What are the forms of family support?; When does access to family support matter most?; What inhibits mobilisation of family support?

The support a family can offer was found to be multi-dimensional – emotional, financial, psychological, spiritual, moral, practical. For some, it was all of these.

“All of it. Whatever I need. Love, talking time, being there when you just want to complain, money if needed, hugs, encouragement,” one student who participated in the survey said.

This support was, unsurprisingly, most important during academic “pinch points” (exams, feedback sessions), when homesickness strikes or during stressful periods.

There’s one big reason that stops them from going to their families for support: Their worries and concerns about elderly parents or other family members. Many then feel the need to not burden their families further, resulting in stress or anxiety.

And for those who feel as such, their studies and overall satisfaction at a foreign university could suffer.

One survey respondent said: “I am not able to put 100 percent effort in my studies. Somehow it stops me.”

These findings show how UK universities should and must consider family and its impact on international students’ completing and thriving in their studies while overseas. Providing more support could result in better retention, success and satisfaction of international students.

Recommendations include allowing students to pay their fees in installments so as not to burden less wealthy students, more trust by academic staff and tutors, as well as going beyond the traditional international student pairings which may make them feel less belonged in the local community.

The survey was funded by UK Council for International Student Affairs and analysed 230 survey responses and 21 in-depth interviews.

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