Creating a Sense of Belonging for International Students

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By Nasreen Sultana, PhD

Years back, when I came to Canada as an international student, the first and consistent feeling I had at least the next many months was that I did not belong to the classroom. I did not know the people around me, I did not know the content of their talks, I did not know ‘double-double’, I craved for ‘chai,’ and I felt a non-existent person in the busy student streets of the school. During those days, I never felt like I was part of the classroom. The question is how teachers can create a sense of community in the classroom for international students, be it in the face-to-face class or in the remote classroom. 

This teaching tip explores why teachers should invest their time and energy in building a sense community for the international students and in what ways their teaching experience can enhance students’ learning experiences.  

A sense of belonging 

Studies on international students suggest that a sense of belonging positively influences students’ learning and performance. Most of the international students are inclined to generate a strong sense of alienation, which makes them lonely and less motivated in doing the work. This feeling of non-belonging to anywhere becomes more robust in the absence of food, cultural celebrations, and loved ones. Students who are in a foreign country for a few years also occasionally may feel the waves of intense homesickness when they do not get to celebrate their cultural or religious holidays.

I still get a tight knot in my heart thinking the celebration of Ramadan in Bangladesh and month-long shopping for Eid. Imagine you are in a country where there is no Christmas holiday or shopping, there is no Canada Day to celebrate, or no one cares about Easter dinner or Thanksgiving turkey. Our international students go through these cravings and feeling of missing out every single day of their lives. The need to belong is a basic human desire which serves as the driving force behind what we do in life. 

Academic success 

The existing literature indicates that students’ sense of belonging to the classroom has a positive correlation with their academic performance. If the instructor can create a sense of ‘fit-in’ in the international students, it will work as an intrinsic motivation for them. In this way, both international and domestic students need supports from the instructors.

When students feel that they are part of the classroom community, it positively influences their cognitive and affective aspects. A sense of community can increase their class attendance, participation, engagement, and eventually smoothens their transitions to a new community. This is the moral responsibility of the educators to create a sense of belonging in the classroom – the need is even more definite when we are teaching remotely. 

Supporting international students

What are the ways to create a sense of community (both for the domestic and international students)? How can eConestoga be used to create this communal feeling? How do we create a sense of belonging for the new out-of-country international students when we teach remotely? 

Register for the Fostering Student Success in a Remote Environment workshop series to learn about best practices. To find out more about the Teaching and Learning Summer 2020 Workshop Series, visit the Teaching and Learning workshop home page, view the workshop documents for details, then choose a time from the drop-down menu and register.

Here are some additional learning opportunities for Conestoga employees:

Teaching new out-of-country international students in Spring 2020 – PDEV0811  

Teaching international students who will be attending remote Canadian classrooms for the first time while sitting in their home country can pose novel and unexpected teaching and learning challenges. Join this workshop to learn techniques to support students and develop supportive relationships for their journey from home to Conestoga. 

Creating a Learning Community within eConestoga – PDEV0788  

Have you ever considered using e-Conestoga to build a learning community for you and your students? How can you leverage eConestoga to set the tone for cooperative active learning in our remote classes, in lieu of in-class ice-breakers and protocol-setting activities? 


Museus, S. D., Yi, V., & Saelua, N. (2018). How culturally engaging campus environments influence sense of belonging in college: An examination of differences between White students and students of color. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education11(4), 467-483.

Yao, C. W. (2015). Sense of belonging in international students: Making the case against integration to US institutions of higher education. Faculty Publications in Educational Administration, 45, 6-10

Nasreen Sultana

​Nasreen Sultana, PhD, has worked in post-secondary education for almost a decade. Prior to joining Conestoga College, she taught in the teacher education program at Queen's University while completing her PhD. Nasreen brings international experience and exposure to the role of the Teaching and Learning Consultant, and invites discussions and learning regarding various aspects of diversity in faculty and in students. Her areas of research include intercultural communication, assessment and classroom instruction.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you, Dr. Sultana! Your first hand experience beautifully illuminates what the research tells us. Great picture!

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