Henry’s story: Navigating discrimination as a student
“Can you speak properly?” These were the first words I heard from my professor during my first month in the UK.
Studying abroad had always been my dream—a chance to explore new horizons, experience diverse cultures and embark on a life-changing adventure. However, my journey as an international student in the UK unfolded as a complex narrative with both highs and lows, significantly impacting my mental wellbeing. Yet, it is a story that extends beyond international students alone; it is a narrative that touches on the struggles faced by both international and home students alike.
Leaving my home country was a mix of excitement and apprehension. I eagerly anticipated studying in a world-class institution and the chance to immerse myself in a different culture. After all, it was my first time out of my home country. However, the reality of life as a student in a foreign land soon revealed itself as a multifaceted challenge. The most apparent hurdle was the language barrier, a challenge not limited to international students alone. Despite my relative proficiency in English, communication within the classroom posed a constant challenge for many students, both international and home. Effective communication became akin to walking on a tightrope, constantly fearing being misunderstood. These difficulties with pronunciation, grammar and accent took a toll on my self-esteem and gradually contributed to a growing sense of isolation.
However, this issue extended beyond that, as I confronted stereotypes and prejudices that are all too common on campuses worldwide. It is quite strange, as we often associate universities as being “progressive” spaces where discrimination is not present. However, international students like me, as well as home students, often find themselves reduced to one-dimensional caricatures with their abilities unfairly judged based on stereotypes. Phrases like “Chinese students don’t mingle with other students”, “Northerners are uncultured”, “Posh students are snobbish” and “Your English is so good for a foreigner” were some of the things you would typically hear. Some of these things might be said in jest, but these stereotypes left many students feeling like outsiders in both academic and social circles.
One incident stands out vividly—a lecture where my professor publicly shamed me for how I spoke. Instead of asking me to repeat my question, the professor curtly told me to “speak properly”. But this incident served as a stark reminder that discrimination based on how we speak is not limited to international students; it affects students of all backgrounds.
Research by the Sutton Trust has shown that 42% of Scottish students have experienced accent discrimination. I quickly realised that accent discrimination was an issue within the UK, where people are judged (and classed) for how they speak. However, it ran much deeper than that; classism’s pervasive influence extended to shaping the hobbies we do, the friendships we form, the entertainment we engage with, and even our very sense of identity. Discrimination is a lot more than just race. These incidents of discrimination can create a hostile environment for any student, eroding their self-confidence and sense of belonging.
Yet, one of the worst experiences etched in my memory unfolded around one of my tutorial sessions. I vividly recall the day when the discussion revolved during my first tutorial. When we went into small groups to discuss about what we learned, I could not help but sense a palpable feeling of exclusion enveloping me. It appears everyone else in the room had effortlessly formed connections with each other, their camaraderie underscoring my stark ‘otherness.’
“When it was my turn to speak, no one cared. I felt like an outsider, both in appearance and accent, and the emotional weight of that isolation bore down on me, leaving me feeling ostracised and profoundly hurt when I left the classroom.
“I realised that I needed help and that for me was an important first step. I found refuge in the support of other students. international and home alike. Being away from home was incredibly difficult, as I did not have a support group. Forming connections with others became my lifeline.”
Through their support, I discovered the importance of resilience and the inner strength needed to endure such hardships. I also realised that I was not alone in feeling this way. Managing my mental health then became a daily practice, something that applies to students from all levels of society. I embraced regular exercise into my routine and reached out for professional help when the darkness seemed too overwhelming. These self-care practices were crucial in navigating the emotional turbulence associated with student life.
Regardless, my experiences illuminated the pressing need for universities and society to confront mental health issues and discrimination against students of all backgrounds.
My story is a plea for awareness and a call to action, urging the creation of a more inclusive and empathetic environment. No student, regardless of who they are, should be forced to endure the discrimination and mental anguish that many students face during their academic journey.
My journey as a student has been a roller coaster of challenges and resilience, a testament to the strength that lies within every student. As we navigate the journey called life, we illuminate the path toward a profound transformation—a world where unity, understanding, and genuine appreciation define our shared journey. If you are a student reading this, know that your struggles are valid. And as cliché as it sounds, know that you should not have to face your problems alone.
This story of lived experience was written by a student who would like to stay anonymous, and for the purpose of sharing his story with others, he chose the name Henry.
If you are an educator or work in student support, Bloom and Your Resilience provides school staff with the opportunity to develop their skills and confidence in having open conversations about mental health and support young people in transitioning to higher education. Learn more about the different Young People’s Programmes and contact us for more details.
Our Advice and Support Service is open Monday to Friday, 10 am to 4 pm, where advisers can signpost you to local support that most fits your needs, including our Change Mental Health services. We offer initial advice on money worries and help to deal with emergencies.
Contact 0808 8010 515, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out the enquiry form on the Advice and Support Service page.
Breathing Space is a free and confidential phone service for anyone in Scotland over the age of 16 feeling low, depressed or anxious. Phone Breathing Space on 0800 83 85 87 (6pm to 2am, weekdays and 24 hours at the weekend).