International student involvement at the language centre: a student’s perspective

Hei. I’m Sina. I am a trainee at the language centre of the University of Helsinki. I came to Finland as a master’s exchange student, and helped out at the language centre as a course assistant in the German unit and OOTU assistant in the autonomous learning unit. I enjoyed my stay immensely, and the collaborative and creative atmosphere in the language centre is what made me want to do an internship here.

International student inclusion has been a part of my student life since the beginning. I was born and raised in Germany but ended up doing most of my studies abroad. I got my Bachelor in Business Administration from the Netherlands, where I was also active as a student buddy and promotional student and got my first experience of student inclusion and involvement. Moreover, I went abroad for a practical semester in Hong Kong and an Erasmus exchange in Tampere. Through having a tutor in Tampere, and later in Helsinki, I got another glimpse of how students could impact the university community. Yet, those activities are separate from actual classes and thus student involvement is limited.

As my idea about cultures, people and learning had evolved over the years and become one of my main interests, I decided to do my Master in Intercultural Management, in France. There I studied ethnography, intercultural communication, diversity management and related subjects, which gave me even more tools and frameworks of how to look at interactions and communications between people and cultures. I also helped conceptualising and leading intercultural workshops, as well as helped develop a training game in relation to gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. The workshops allowed us to apply what we had learned by sharing the knowledge with our student participants. Even more significantly was the training game, as it is a real life project with a company, allowing us students to shape an actual, sellable tool. Other groups organised a career event or planned a programme for international visitors. Nonetheless, these are again examples of limited student involvement. Students are given more autonomy, and interact with the university community and partners, yet, this is very program and course specific, and does not represent a wider approach.

Finally, my exchange brought me to the University of Helsinki, and I got to know a different approach to (international) student inclusion and involvement. Compared to my previous experiences, the approach at the Language Centre of the University of Helsinki, shows an extraordinary amount of trust into the students and openness for collaboration. It is based on fostering equality, inclusion and learning on multiple levels, and adds significant value for everyone involved.

Professional value of international student assistants

First of all, international student inclusion is very rewarding from a professional point of view. It enables course assistants to learn from experienced professionals and gives them a chance to try out different activities and ideas, to truly show initiative, since it all happens in a safe and supportive environment. This is valuable not just to those aiming to be a teacher in the future. The collaboration with the teachers and other assistants is a great source of exchange, learning and creativity. For me, it also meant gaining confidence in my skills as an assistant, confidence when presenting and explaining something in front of a group. Learning to explicate something complex, to non-native speakers, has a significant impact on one’s communication skills. This improvement in confidence and communication skills of the course assistants can contribute to their integration into the university community and feeling more at ease in their foreign environment, as well as their professional skills.

On the other hand, there is also professional value for language students and teachers. Economic circumstances such as an increasing demand for Chinese language skills, happenings such as Brexit or economic developments that affect the demand for example for Spanish, and French, force language centres to rethink their approaches and what they offer. The content of classes can shift, for example to focus on CVs, job applications and current affairs. International course assistants can ease these continuous adaptations. Through student inclusion, for example by having native course assistants, language is brought to life and presented more realistically. These students can bring in their up to date knowledge about their culture, relevant terminology and nuances that are not present in a simple text book. The teachers can expand their cultural and linguistic knowledge without having to attend separate trainings or use their limited time. Meanwhile, language students benefit from up to date and authentic input.

From language teaching towards intercultural competences

Not only do people from different cultural backgrounds come together in classes, but language teaching also goes beyond just language. For example, when my Swedish teacher talks about fika or the new gender-neutral pronoun I am not just learning the language, I am learning the culture, values and habits in Sweden. But this can also become an issue. In my opinion, language teaching can also accidentally generalise and reduce a culture to stereotypes. Having international assistants helps to keep material and input for the students up to date, especially when talking about sensitive topics such as stereotypes, minorities, political aspects and many more. Moreover, meeting a native speaker gives students the possibilities to ask questions and challenge what they might have seen or heard in the media. This can also lower inhibitions when talking to foreigners in the future and decrease the barrier between Finnish and internationals in general. Instead of feeling estranged when learning a new language and culture, they have the chance to ask questions and to get a native’s point of view. In return, the course assistants get to ask local students about their culture, which also makes the students reflect on what they consider ‘normal’ and increase their cultural self-awareness.

Each assistant brings in a unique personal and academic background, which results in a lot of fresh thoughts and creative ideas. In my case, due to my background I am well aware of cultural differences and how to approach them. Having this knowledge, combined with my other experiences abroad, I as a language centre assistant or trainee, can say “stop, watch out” or “this seems typical in Finland but have you considered that elsewhere…” And I know that my comments will fall on open ears. Being included in such a way, and having what makes me different seen as a value helps greatly in making me feel more equal and welcome at the university. Instead of being just a guest or addition to the university I become an active, contributing member.

This awareness and openness towards cultural differences is not just important on a personal level. The existence of intercultural studies and the many human resource trainings regarding this, prove that intercultural communication is an issue especially in the work place and when getting people to work together. Cultural competences and intercultural awareness are on an increasing amount of job adverts. In my opinion, gaining these competences early on is not just “nice” but a significant asset. Language classes bring together people from very different fields, some which might have hardly any exposure to the international community of the university and Finland in general. Attending classes where course assistants are present, gives students a safe place to learn from each other and to build up their intercultural competences.

Unique guidance opportunities

Languages and communication skills are key competencies in a majority of jobs nowadays, be it business, research or healthcare. Thanks to the assistants, language students get to practice their communication skills more thoroughly and get out of their comfort zone; as assistants can spend more time on students than teachers and have more flexibility. For example, as an international trainee, I am hosting pronunciation clinics. Due to my flexible schedule, I can meet with small groups of students and focus on their individual needs and wants. This can also help students who might otherwise not be able to follow courses fast enough, those who have a very tight schedule, and those that want to perfect their level of speaking to use it in a professional setting. Due to having international assistants, the language centre is able to expand its offers in various ways, e.g. by offering language clubs for select languages and different workshops. In regards to job skills, offers can include CV and interview training, grammar clinics, etc. Coming from a more business related background, I can let that shape my work here and advocate for an increasing focus on employability and working culture.

Moreover, the international assistants can also build up a more personal bond with students. The assistants can also talk to them on a more personal level, which can be more motivating for students, as they get to choose the topics and can focus on what they care about. This applies especially to out of classroom activities. During autonomous courses assistants can organise get-togethers and excursions outside the normal classroom frame. No matter how low the hierarchy between teachers and students in Finland, it is still a distinction that can make it challenging for students to freely express themselves. Activities without teachers allow students to learn and engage in a different atmosphere and lowers inhibitions to speak.

Embracing diversity

Last but not least, I also feel responsible for representing diversity and the interests of minority groups – not just due to my studies and interests. I can use my own experiences as a member of several minority and diverse groups, to raise questions, awareness and issues that might get overlooked otherwise or are unique to e.g. non-Finnish students. Knowing that I can be an advocate and push for inclusion and diversity is a very empowering feeling. It is a simple fact that teachers and staff simply do not have the resources to focus on every little detail. Thus, having course assistants to point out e.g. outdated job terminology and offer insight into neologisms and new gender neutral words, adds another level to this cooperation. International assistants can also help with making the courses more accessible for non-Finnish students e.g. by helping with translations and paying special attention to those students in class. Not only is it a goal of the university to foster a positive attitude towards diversity and equality, I know from personal experience that the inclusion of diverse people and situations in the classroom materials can mean the world to the students who identify with them. International students can also offer a better insight and increase awareness of minority groups and their struggles in the assistant’s home country and culture, e.g. ethnical minorities, but also the treatment of gender and sexual minorities or different religions.

The unique guidance opportunities mentioned previously are nice in general, but especially useful for people who have problems during normal classes or those who have a learning disability. Consequently, course assistants can ensure that those students receive more attention and support. This fosters equality and understanding for unique learners and ensures that people do not get left behind.

To conclude

To keep up the quality of language teaching, we need to be creative, and this program gives international students the opportunity to make a positive impact – not separate from classes or the rest of the university, but by being right in the middle of everything, working together with language centre staff and students.


Sina Timme,

Language Centre Trainee


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