Why Chinese international students rely on Wechat

Australia’s Chinese university students have had a tough few months. While the travel ban remains in place, this is a perfect time to reflect on the kinds of support our Chinese students need – both while they wait in China and on arrival once our doors are opened again. What kind of information will our students need? How will they access it and how will it be used? How can Australia be ready to ensure our students are properly understood, supported and welcomed back onto our campuses?




The first step to answering these questions is to understand the ways Chinese international students currently find answers to their problems and learn about their new host country. How do Chinese students access support about course requirements but also about daily life in Australia? The answer is Wechat – China’s infamous ‘super app’ which currently boasts more than 1.1 billion users globally (Kemp 2020).


Universities around the world, including in Australia, use Wechat for marketing and promotion, for providing information, pushing news and events and linking with alumni (Zhu 2019)[1]. Chinese students and the broader Chinese community in Australia use Wechat for a multitude of tasks – including supporting each other, staying connected to home and interacting with other people undergoing a similar international student journey (Park 2017).


All of these tasks place Wechat at the forefront of how Chinese students maintain a sense of shared identity, transnational connectivity and a sense of belonging in a diasporic community. The technology interweaves student experiences in China and Australia. It functions to tie together how life ‘was’ in China and how life ‘is now’ in Australia. Our Chinese students are, through their use of this technology, seamlessly linking these two geographical landscapes.


To understand how to best make use of Wechat in order to provide effective student services we must better understand these two landscapes. Understanding what student life is like in China allows us to understand the cultural context around which Wechat has become theprimary source of peer-to-peer student support for Chinese students in Australia.


Like first year students around the world, when a student enters university in China for her first day, she will inevitably be anxious. Most university students in China travel to a different city, and often a different province to attend university. Until this time, most young people have lived a relatively sheltered life at home attending school and starting for the end-of-school gao kao examinations.


On arrival, she will be placed into a ‘class’ together with around 15 – 20 students in the same beginning year and the same department. These same students will stay together throughout the duration of their studies. These students and the strong bonds between classmates - forms the basis of China’s student support system.


These same students will be allocated a dorm room with other classes from the same department. Unlike in Australia, Chinese universities guarantee each student a residential place from first year through to the end of PhD. Students eat together at the cafeteria where food is heavily subsidized. Chinese students in China live together, eat together, socialise together and study together – in the same cohort throughout their university lives.


During the first weeks of university, each class selects a leader, called a ‘monitor’ and several associate leaders. These leaders report to a staff member in the department called a ‘Fu Dao Yuan’ or a ‘counselor’. The Fu Dao Yuan is often a PhD student or an early career researcher – and their job is tough. Each Fu Dao Yuan is responsible for several ‘classes’ – sometimes up to 150 students can fall under one Fu Dao Yuan’s care.


This person – the Fu Dao Yuan – is the one-stop-shop for student services and is on call 24/7 for each student under their care. The Fu Dao Yuan’s job covers wide spectrum of work – from student’s moral education to their day-to-day living, from mental health to career advising (Liu and Lin 2016).


The social life of students in China – in the dorm room and with their classmates – forms a tight network where problems are addressed together before being raised up the chain of bureaucratic hierarchy. It is communal. Everyone is a part of the network and everyone is, in some way, connected to resolving the issues of their classmates. It is very difficult – if not impossible – to fall outside of the student support network.


Translate this to a student arriving in Australia. Our universities work hard to provide multiple services on their campuses from careers advice to health centres to study assistance for international students. Students must, individually and on their own terms, seek the service that suits their particular problem. In Australia, our students most often live off campus and attend university to study while maintaining an independent social and work-life off campus.


Wechat, for our Australian Chinese students, serves the function of the classmate, the dorm room and the Fu Dao Yuan. It connects these students together as they share common experiences and challenges. Large ‘chat groups’ on Wechat are used to help each other solve daily problems, study problems and from intimate bonds and friendships. These groups also allow our students to connect to people with greater expertise in their new environment – the Fu Dao Yuans, if you like. These more experienced international students or Chinese community members within the groups provide assistance and advice.


As many of our Chinese students are still in China awaiting the end of this global health crisis, our universities and communities are thinking about how best to support our Chinese students when they return. Taking on a system more like China’s may not be ideal or even possible in an Australian university setting. However, considering the central role that accommodation and peer-to-peer support play for Chinese students could be important for our universities to consider. Integrating university support and messaging with accommodation providers and Chinese diaspora services and media could help to broaden our approach to be more in tune with what our students are familiar with and expecting.


References

Kemp, S. (2020). Digital 2020: China. Hootsuite Report. Online at: https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-china Accessed 4 March 2020


Liu, W. and Lin, X. (2016). ‘Meeting the needs of Chinese international students: Is there anything we can learn from their home system?’ Journal of Studies in International Education. Vol. 20 (4): 357 – 370.


Park, L. (2016). WeChat Red Bags: How International Students from China Use Social Media While Attending a Public University in California. UCLA Masters Thesis.

[1] For a full list of Australian university Wechat account details see: https://www.studyinaustralia.gov.au/english/study-in-australia-student-support/australian-education-provider-list


Angela Lehmann 李安棋

Education Analyst at The Lygon Group


We can learn a lot about the needs of international students by understanding their home context. How is student support delivered in China and how does this translate into an Australian university environment? In this article I explore how - and why wechat is central to Chinese international student support

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