November 19, 2014 Nick Preston

Couple Learning Programme (former)/Culture Exchange Programme (current) – inter-universities’ student councils’ project

Project Culture Exchange Programme is untraditional peer language learning and international students’ integration programme led by three universities’ student councils. The main goal is to raise awareness and understanding within the student body about different cultures and student backgrounds while preventing discrimination and to help international students to learn Latvian language in fun, untraditional way.

Objectives of the Intervention

One of the objectives of this program is the integration of international students, regardless of their country of origin, into the overall student population. Another important aim of this project is tackle racism or in other words any kind of discrimination towards international students in Latvia. The program uses various tools to reach its two goals.

Project activities will be described later in another section. However, it is important to mention that one of the tools used is peer language learning. Peer learning helps international students to learn Latvian outside of the traditional teaching-learning environment. Improved language skills are essential for international students to feel more comfortable and to be able to access Latvian society.

The project is collaboration between the student councils of three higher education institutions in Riga. The three higher education institutions have together currently more than 3,000 international and 30,000 Latvian students enrolled. Each year the here described projects include more than 400 Latvian and international students.

The project is unique in Latvia as no other higher education institutions in Latvia are carrying out a similar activity. It is important to stress the fact that the project raised the attention towards integration and discrimination issues international students are confronted with in Latvia. In 2014 one of the three project coordinators conducted a study called ‘Latvian Students Unity Promotion and Reduction of Discrimination Against Foreign Students’, Results of the study are just published in Latvian so far: http://rtusp.rtu.lv/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/LV_LSSV_buklets_web_pages.pdf

Origins and rationale of this initiative

The number of international students in Latvia is increasing every year. This is also related to the ambition of the Latvian government to create a knowledge industry and therefore more international students are needed. Although the enrolment number of international students is increasing there is so far hardly any activity to integrate and welcome international students.

There are Latvian higher education institutions where more than 1/7 of the students are coming from abroad. The need to integrate international students and provide them with equal opportunities as their Latvian peers is increasing. International students regularly study in English and are in 90% of their courses just surrounded by international peers, but not by Latvians. Taking this high number of segregated classes into account the need for platforms to get to know each other and to tackle stereotypes and other problems related to racism is obvious.

The project was in 2010 initially started by the Student Council of the University of Latvia with 30 participants. Since then it has grown into a collaboration project, which includes more and more participating students.

The project is not based on any particular theoretical framework but in the design of project activities there are some theoretical approaches taken into consideration, e.g. for the language learning part or how integration into a society could look like.

Target groups intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

Target groups of this initiative are local and international students from three higher education institutions in Riga. All students enrolled in these higher education institutions can apply for the program. Participation is free of charge and based on motivation only. Students can participate regardless of their race, religion, country of origin, socio-economic status background, gender, sexual orientation or disability etc. The project provides a safe environment for all participants. The participation in the program is limited to one time, so that there is also the opportunity for other students to get engaged.

The program targets higher education institutions, but also local communities.

Political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

This initiative was started by local students and it is important to acknowledge that it was/is supported by the local student community. As mentioned before, the Latvian government’s target is to establish a higher education economy without any focus on social needs. There are no opportunities for integration provided or opportunities to tackle racism within Latvian society towards international students. The program as here presented can be seen as a valuable add-on to the governmental interests or even as a pre-condition to attract international students in the long run.

Involved organizations in the program have changed over the year, e.g. the Medical School is not longer participating as the program was seen as too time consuming. It is crucial to understand that this kind of program requires a certain amount of time and this might be conflicting with some study curricula as they are right now.

The program is related to societal problems as there have been cases where violence against international students occurred. However, the project might not be able to directly work on racism in society overall as its participants are enrolled students. As international students are mostly in contact with their Latvian peers, the project is at least able to ensure preventive measures against racist incidents of all kinds.

The increasing interest of students to participate in this program can be seen as evidence for success.

Overall Programme design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

The project team consists of students from each of the partner student councils. Each year there is a team of students responsible for the project management, designing the project activities, public relations, communication with participants and financial management. As each year’s project team is different, it is possible for several students interested in prospective responsibilities to learn and upgrade their competencies.

The project consists of two parts:

  1. Peer language learning – in order to learn the Latvian language, international students are paired with Latvian students. Each participant is teaching her/his native language: local students teach Latvian and international students teach their own language. Language is considered as one of the most important tools for integration into the local society. Additionally a better knowledge of the local language provides international students with the possibility of entering the local labour market. During the project cycle, which lasts for 3 months each, all of the student pairs meet together twice a month. Between meetings most of the “pairs” meet to catch up on the language learning process.
  2. All of the programme participants additionally meet twice a month for other activities. One meeting lasts for around three hours. During those three hours the project organizers engage participants into several activities. Usually activities are thematic and the goal is to provide a better understanding of different cultures. Another goal is to create a friendly multicultural environment, to motivate pairs to attend together on a later stage in their studies courses at their higher educations institutions. In each cycle there is one meeting dedicated to Latvian customs and culture. The entire learning process is informal. Participants learn for example to play national games or to sing traditional songs etc. On average the participants of each year are coming from 25 different countries. Therefore it is very important to include activities to enhance cultural understanding and not just an understanding of the local environment. During the meetings stereotypes are a central topic and several activities are carried out to identify stereotypes and to break them down. Participants are also provided with a platform where they can talk about their experiences regarding discrimination and racism and consider how these things can be prevented.

As the project was started five years ago, it is now possible to reflect on outcomes. Every student is asked to fill out a survey to provide feedback to the organizers. Participants were for example asked how they benefited from the program and how they would develop the program further. Results of these surveys show that it is easier for international students to adjust to the local community and that they feel safer.

Describe if the project ensured its sustainability

One of the main reasons why the project has been lasting for already 5 years is the need for integration of international students and constant change/addition of project partners. As described before, the project was initiated by one student council and after a few years other student councils were interested and joined. This combination of old and new project partners is one of the key drivers. The combination provides the knowledge developed over time and includes also regularly fresh ideas, new profiles of students.

This type of project requires a dynamic development as the composition of the student body constantly changes and the student movement is flexible enough to adjust to ensure this dynamic. At the same time there is certain risk that the integration of international students might not such a high priority as it is today and the dynamic development stops.

The project became quite popular among students and each semester when new cycle is coming up, students ask when project will start. So there is a demand for it from the side of the students and this demand for the project also ensures it sustainability.

The project has not been replicated outside of Riga so far. But, other student councils have shown interest and there is the prospect of more project partners joining. However, this is only possible on the condition that project capacity will increase in the future.

The project partner organisation, which left the project (the medical school student council; described before), implemented a similar project at their institution. It became obvious that involved participants need to have a similar daily schedule to guarantee success. The project can be seen as replicated - although in the same geographical area.

Resources used in the initiative

The involved student councils provide around 500 Euros for each project cycle. This low budget is just possible because the entire project team is volunteering at the moment. Also all the meetings as described in the previous section are realized with the help of volunteers.

The total time budget provided by volunteers is not monitored so far, therefore no figures can be provided.

The Universities are supporting the project with access to their buildings and the technical equipment.

Did the intervention reach its objectives?

The main evidence for the project success is coming from a survey filled out by the participants after they participated in a project cycle.

There are two reasons why this is very important:

  1. The survey provides the opportunity to identify what has been successful and what was not successful. This can than immediately be used to re-design the next project cycle.
  2. The survey can also be used to identify how the project has an impact on the participants.

Quantitative, as well as qualitative questions are used for the survey. Quantitative questions are just used if a participant stayed for the whole project cycle. Qualitative questions are used for all individuals taking part in project. The qualitative questions are targeted to evaluate the impact on participants, taking e.g. language, integration, understanding of other cultures and backgrounds into consideration.

The project provides opportunities to be expanded, not only in its size, but also in its content. Narratives from participants could be used in the future for public events.

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