Student perspectives on UKCISA Conference 2021

Blog for students
08 September 2021
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Since the launch of the #WeAreInternational Student Ambassador Programme, this is the first time our ambassadors have (virtually) met our members at the UKCISA Annual Conference 2021. Let’s have a look back at their experience and reflections of participating in the conference:

Nebu George, Chair of the Student Advisory Group

At a conference aimed at higher education professionals, what may appear odd to the norm yet a much-needed novelty in the sector were the voices of international students. These were the voices of the #WeAreInternational student ambassadors.

From setting the tone of the conference on the opening plenary, discussions with members on the draft International Student Charter pulled together by student ambassadors, to an alumna student ambassador closing the conference with a reflective and heartfelt speech - it was beyond doubt that UKCISA Conference 2021 has a strong focus on championing international students as agents for positive change.

I have witnessed a great shift in our sector in the past 16 months or so since joining the first cohort of the #WeAreInternational Student Ambassador Programme. We, as international students, are now invited to be part of the policy conversations.

This conference is a good showcase of 'international students' are not just numbers or case studies that people talk about, but a group of advocates that people now speak and listen to.

I, too, was privileged to be given a platform at this conference, to speak on the same panel with the President of UKCISA Lord Karan Bilimoria, on the topic of employability. The day coincided with the launch of the Graduate Route, and I was impressed by our members’ commitment to make the Graduate Route a success for students. While I was able to raise the need for better conversations and coordination between the education sector and employers, my fellow student panelist Simran raised an important point that is close to my heart – we need to move the conversations beyond the international students’ financial contributions to the UK and raise more awareness of the unique opportunities and networks, as well as social and culture benefits that students bring to local communities.

The launch of the Graduate Route is a new era of hope and opportunities, and we as international students are grateful for the undeniable efforts that the sector has put into making it happen. With such positive changes and more international student voices being heard, the sector is becoming ever more #WeAreInternational as we stand on the precipice of major changes in international education in the UK. I am confident that with UKCISA’s vision of putting student voice at the centre of everything we do, we can develop an inclusive global student community and create the most global generation together.

Katie Crabtree

My fellow ambassadors and I got the chance to speak with UKCISA members, international officers, and others working on behalf of international students at our roundtable discussion during the UKCISA Conference. During this session, we shared sections of the #WeAreInternational Student Charter that we have been working on and facilitated small group discussions with attendees to get their feedback and learn from their point of view. As a #WeAreInternational Student Ambassador this was such an illuminating experience! The conference allowed us to speak directly to those who work most closely with international students in the UK. It was helpful to understand the different institutional pressures that international student advisers and other student support staff face. These insights are invaluable to us as we continue to work on the #WeAreInternational Student Charter.

Simran Mahajan

The UKCISA general conference started with a bang! Our very own student ambassador, Anna, joined UKCISA Chief Executive Anne Marie Graham and Chair of UKCISA trustees Prof. Koen Lamberts in the opening session with a really moving speech that I, and I believe a lot of international students, really resonated with. Crucially, she urged the panel “we want to be part of the important conversations’’ and by providing Anna with a platform to speak in the first place, the conference stood testament to the fact that change is underway.

The intensive and knowledge-packed week that followed was both informative and engaging. Several sessions were tailored towards sharing best practice and as a student it was fascinating to gain insight into the myriad of processes and procedures that go on behind the scenes to facilitate the student experience- many of which we otherwise take for granted! But for me the sessions that really stole the show were the ones surrounding co-production and student wellbeing. It was encouraging to see so many delegates representing universities around the country truly enthusiastic about embracing these shifts in conversation. It makes me excited and optimistic about the future of the international student experience.

Towards the end of the week, it was the day all international graduates in the UK were waiting for- the Graduate Route launch! Chair of UKCISA student ambassadors, Nebu George and I had the pleasure of engaging in discussion with Lord Bilimoria, a former international student himself, and it was refreshing to speak to someone who understood first-hand what it is to be an international student. We began by celebrating the new route, but also took the opportunity to voice some of our concerns specifically surrounding the practicalities of the route including logistics and cost. In the end, there was a consensus that the new route is a marked shift in the governments approach to international students. As students, we acknowledge and embrace the flexibility and generosity of the changes being made, and hope that our experiences can further allow the visa to evolve and prove to be a compelling option for international student employment. As student ambassadors, we look forward to working with the sector to ensure it is a success.

Really looking forward to UKCISA Fest at the end of the year!

Reese Chamberlain

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at UKCISA Conference 2021! As both a first-time attendee and a presenter there was much that I looked forward to at this year’s event. What I enjoyed most of all throughout the conference was the sense of camaraderie shared between fellow attendees and presenters. Whether it be through social media postings or the chat rooms of conference plenaries, every person that I digitally ‘met’ wore their passion for the sector on their sleeve and was abundantly excited to be engaged as a community. From a buzzing keynote session with Barrister Colin Yeo at the very end of day two’s programme to my own roundtable session in the middle of day three during the International Student Charter session, I always felt welcome to engage with the many professionals of our sector and to contribute to creative solutions for the many challenges that we face.

In a sector that from the outside may seem intrinsically competitive and defensive, I truly enjoyed watching UKCISA members - from education providers to organisations across the sector - openly sharing ideas and good practice, and work in partnership to support international students.

I can’t wait to meet our members again (and in person!) at UKCISA Conference 2022 in Newcastle. I hope to see you there!

Claudia Yanez

As a second year PhD student, since the start of my doctoral studies I have been very keen to attend conferences and seminars, but Covid-19 changed that. Fortunately, a lot of opportunities for online conferences and webinars appeared, one of them being UKCISA Annual Conference 2021.

I was lucky enough to have full access as I am part of the #WeAreInternational Student Ambassador Programme. This was my very first UKCISA Conference participation as a delegate and as a discussant for the roundtable session on the student Charter. Coincidentally, it was also the first time UKCISA was running a whole Online Annual Conference.

When I read the conference programme, day three of the conference (themed as student and staff wellbeing) really caught my eye. I am currently researching employee wellbeing for my PhD thesis. Therefore, I find student wellbeing experiences fascinating and at the forefront of people’s mind right now.

UKCISA Annual Conference 2021 was full of interesting sessions. Although there were sessions that ‘clashed’ with each other, it really helped the fact that I could watch some sessions asynchronously and whenever suited me during the week and the weeks after.

I attended Doug Little’s session “Are We Globally MindEd?”. Learning what other universities are doing to support students’ mental health & wellbeing provided me with the chance to inform myself about good practice from the Student Connectors programme at the University of Sussex, for example. This definitely helps me to discuss with the international student support team at my university how to enhance current programmes through benchmarking. Also, this session brought me up-to-date regarding the International Student Mental Health (ISMH) project which made me reflect on issues experienced by some international students, for instance when disclosing mental challenges to members of staff at their universities. It was surprising to know that sometimes students have to disclose mental challenges to more than two members of staff at their universities instead of being referred directly to the NHS Therapy support.

One of the final sessions on day three was the session on the International Student Charter chaired by UKCISA Chief Executive, Anne Marie Graham. I took part as a facilitator for one of the discussion rooms. I thank UKCISA for this opportunity not only to talk with UKCISA members about student wellbeing and the international student charter but to hear from them about how engaged and committed they are in enhancing the international student experience as well as the institutions they represent. It was very inspiring to know how important it is for them to learn exactly what international students’ experiences (the good and the bad) and needs are. It was also interesting to realise how open universities are to benchmarking best practices and adapting them to make them meaningful for international students and true to their organisational culture.

Overall, day three was one of my favourite ones and I wanted to reflect on some of the sessions from this day since I felt it focused on the importance of maintaining meaningful connections when you are an international student. Providing international students with opportunities to create their own initiatives and/or to participate and collaborate on current initiatives led by their universities is a great way to build a community.

Anna So

I had an amazing experience as one of the speakers at the Opening Ceremony of UKCISA Annual Conference. In addition to speaking at the opening plenary at the virtual conference, I also participated in a session that introduced our award-winning #WeAreInternational campaign presented by my fellow student ambassadors. I really enjoyed the Myriad by UCAS session, where I learnt about UK higher education, including how different universities respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and communicate expectations to students.

When I joined as a student ambassador, I pledged to actively engage in policy-influencing for a better student experience in the UK. UKCISA has empowered many international students to take part in important conversations, and I hope that my experience will inspire you too!

JR Candia

This was my first UKCISA Annual Conference, and I was amazed to see such a diversity of topics being covered and the great interest of participants. I was part of the session on Wednesday, aimed at introducing #WeAreInternational Student Ambassadors.

It was a very enjoyable experience, where we spoke about the relevance of the program, about our own experience as international student ambassadors, and about the contributions of the international student community to the UK, among others.

I was delighted to be invited to this panel and have the opportunity to engage with UKCISA members. It was also a great experience to share this space with other fellow ambassadors and listen to their own views and thoughts, as well as interacting with the audience.

Thanks UKCISA for the opportunity and congratulations for the incredible organisation!

Daniel Haid

UKCISA's annual conference has been a great opportunity for me to expand my knowledge on a range of topics important for international students during their time in the UK. These sessions covered a broad range including international student employability, digital transformation, and visa regulations.

I was delighted to see that multiple sessions focused on international students from the EU countries. Since I have done a lot of work on that topic myself, I know how confusing all the recent changes can be. It was great to see that UKCISA members are aware of the up-to-date situation and prepared to provide EU students with the extra support they need.

My personal highlight was being a part of the panel to introduce the #WeAreInternational Student Ambassador Programme. It was exciting to talk about the work we have been doing over the last 15 months to the members and hear their feedback directly. Sharing our journey and showing how much international students can contribute was a great experience. The overwhelmingly positive feedback gave me a great feeling of appreciation and motivation to keep advocating for international student rights and student experience.

Melody Sequeira

This was my first time attending the UKCISA annual conference and I enjoyed my experience. Although it was held on an online platform, the engagement was not compromised. This can be illustrated through the various engagement platforms, like Padlet, Instagram stories and exhibitors pages. Further, the Twitter competition (where delegates shared their favourite moment(s) of #UKCISA2021 for the chance to win an iPad) created excitement and anticipation among attendees.

The week began with a great conference welcome with heartwarming greetings and a brief glance on what the attendees can expect through the conference. I personally loved that a fellow international student ambassador was a part of the welcome panel, to share their experience as an international student during the pandemic.

I also enjoyed the introduction to the blogging session where Rachel, who showed attendees how we can work on wordpress and the various features of using it. Additionally, the brief mindfulness practice sessions through the week were refreshing and showed the attendees some techniques that we can apply into our daily lives.

Being a student, I found the free student fringe Facebook Live sessions very informative. While, the Graduate route session informed students about what it looks like and what we can expect from the graduate route; the other focused on career success and what platforms students can use to apply for jobs and gain more experience.

Additionally, the session by Doug Little on the Mental Health Project was very interesting. Through the session, Doug showed attendees the process of their mental health project, the studies and surveys done to gather information and the outcome of this project that is set to benefit students and their mental wellbeing.

Lastly, I enjoyed the Introducing the #WeareInternational student ambassadors session. It was nice to see student representation and hear their views on who we are, the work we do and the impact we have and will have in the sector.

UKCISA successfully carried out a virtual event that was engaging, interesting and informative. I am really looking forward to attending more UKCISA events!

Natalia Nassonova

The UKCISA Conference this year was full of exciting events, fresh insights and interesting people. I was lucky enough to attend various sessions - from Lord Billimoria's talk to the roundtable discussion of the draft of the International Student Charter that I co-authored. I've particularly enjoyed the conversation we had with delegates during the "Introducing the #WeAreInternational Student Ambassadors" session on Wednesday. It was amazing to share the experience and exchange ideas with delegates regarding the work of UKCISA and the Student Ambassador Programme and its relevance for universities around the UK. I've taken a lot of useful knowledge away from the conference, and I'm sure many other attendees did too!

Mary Wanjohi

The UKCISA Conference provided valuable insights on issues affecting international students. As a UKCISA student ambassador, I have referred my fellow international students to the Students Fringe sessions that covered the Graduate Route and Career Success. These topics were timely for many international students, with remarkable communication of information!

Additionally, I had an opportunity to take part in the Career Success session. The session was a humbling experience as I encouraged my fellow international students seeking employment opportunities in the UK. Also, I shared some tips on leveraging opportunities as a student, as the skills earned will be instrumental post studies.

Thank you, UKCISA, for supporting international students.