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"Enjoy your education, focus on the things that matter": Interview with Dr. Joanna Fountain

Dr. Joanna Fountain from Lincoln University gives great advice to international students.
BY Skendha Singh |   25-10-2018
Dr. Joanna Fountain
Dr. Joanna Fountain, Lincoln University

A social scientist by training, Dr. Joanna Fountain is Senior Lecturer in Tourism, Faculty of Environment, Society and Design, in Lincoln University (New Zealand). Her research focuses on wine tourism and cultural heritage. When she visited India as part of the New-Zealand India Academic Conclave earlier this year, she spoke to BrainGain Magazine about culture shock, breaking down mental barriers, and why your passion is fundamental to your studies.

Edited excerpts from the conversation are below:

Q: To start with, you are a Social Scientist by training and by interest, and you have researched a lot about the communities, etc. When we talk about international students, it’s about what they get out of international education, but what value do international students bring to a community?

A: As a tourism academic, one thing I found, having taught in Australia and New Zealand (NZ), is that domestic students in both of these countries tend to be relatively ignorant of the world. I mean NZ and Australia are pretty isolated countries unlike Europe. If you grow up in Europe, you speak 3-4 languages and you know about cultural differences. I found in NZ students, there is a sort of insular mentality, which becomes difficult in the tourism industry. Because of course, if you’re going to be working in the tourism industry, you'll be meeting people from very different cultures and backgrounds and actually understanding what they find important.

So I often talk to my students about culture shock and what we can do to deal with culture shock. Generally, their answers always revolve around what the tourists can do. So, you know, how the tourists can learn English, understand the culture, rather than saying what can the industry do to make tourists from different countries feel more welcome. It’s a long way of saying that having international students in my classroom really provides the opportunity for students to start to understand other cultures at the level of individuals. In my undergraduate courses when we talk about culture shock, I normally have an exercise. I focus on the Chinese migrants (because I have more Chinese students than Indians at undergraduate level), I say ‘thinking about culture, what would be four things that people may find difficult in Christchurch?’ It is really good; it is one of my classes where my international students have the floor. My domestic students go, ‘Really? I didn’t know people thought like that!’ It is good because international students provide an educational role as well.

And in my postgrad class, it's all international students. So Indian students will say we do it like this and the Chinese students will say we do it like this, and Cambodian students…Other than that, I am thinking tourism is a global industry as are many other industries increasingly, but understanding other peoples’ ways of life, ways of thinking is absolutely critical to succeed. If you want to make people feel welcome, you need to understand where they are coming from; it doesn’t mean changing what you do, but at least understanding their perspective.

Q: So, how would you define culture shock, especially in the international student context?

A: I think for international students, culture shock can range from food, temperature and weather (it’s not culture, but it all comes together). So when international students come to NZ, they will find the weather, the food, the shops closing early – all of that quite challenging. On top of that, for people from India, where most of the people speak English, just the way we speak very very quickly, the slang we use, so not the language itself, but the way we use language that is confusing. Culture shock can range from feeling kind of disoriented, alienated – one of the symptoms is you tend to go back to doing basic things such as working at how to use the public transport, knowing how much the ticket costs, what zones, can I use my ticket twice. All these things are built on top of each other, alongside homesickness. Sometimes tourists can take a period of adjustment.

We do see that with our international students, often within their first month say I want to go home! Some are even on scholarships and they say I can’t do this. When you are used to going through life, you know how to get your bus, etc., and suddenly you have the helplessness of a child in not being able to do basic things, people kind of question their competence. I think it’s really important, especially in those situations, that the students have support to help them through that period, which sometimes comes from other students, who are six months or a year further on. They can share the whole ‘This will get easier…[perspective].’

Q: What would be your 3 tips to international students for alleviating this culture shock?

A: I think it is important to connect with the community, whether that’s the Indian community, or the student community, or the community where you live; making sure you don’t isolate yourself. Also, asking questions and admitting quite quickly if there’s a problem. We do have in NZ, a duty of care program. We are aware that students coming to our country are guests in our country. We have a program so that they can fit in. So, we understand that it’s not easy, and I think joining a student community and connecting with help if it’s available, they would be the top two [tips].

The third one; often parents of international students invest a lot of money and energy in sending their child overseas. I see some of the international students don’t have a life outside studying, I think it’s important to get out and do some tourism – participate in cultural groups, if you are religious, find a religious group, or a sporting group. You can play your cricket, badminton. Don’t work all the time. I have some students that you can tell [work long hours]. I get emails from at 4 in the morning…they are just working, they are so focused. I think at some point working long hours becomes counterproductive. NZ is a beautiful country, take the opportunity to go to the beach, go for a walk in the hills, sit in the park. You don’t have to go far, just jump on the bus. Getting that work-life balance is really important, that community link is helpful, it puts things into perspective.

Lincoln University
Lincoln University Library building

Q: Who should go into research? How does a student find a research focus that is his or her passion, given parental and societal pressure?

A: In general, you are going to do better at something that you are interested in. I think increasingly, the skills you need from a tertiary education are around critical thinking – being able to synthesize and express ideas. I think that can be done in many different fields. If you are passionate about something and interested in it, it is much easier to do well at it, and it is also about looking at how you can bring together different streams of interests. While I am a sociologist, I am currently working on a project with engineers. What they bring to a study is very different from what I bring to a study, but together we can do better than some of those parts. I am not sure if this answers your question, because it’s hard, you want to get a job, a career, particularly if you have invested so much. Bear in mind that the best thing you can get out of tertiary education is those critical thinking skills. There should be a little more flexibility to do the things you want to.

Q: Is it too idealistic to believe that I can create the job that I want. Do you have to find a balance, or do you have to compromise?

A: A lot of people do create the jobs they want. I think sometimes people get impatient to do that too quickly. Often when you talk to people who have created the jobs they want, it’s taken 20 years. It’s about being prepared to compromise but keeping your eyes open to opportunities. Maybe some students expect that now that I have my degree, I am going get a job way out here. Be prepared to start small but work hard. Even if it is a small job, still give a 110%. Some students think this is beneath me and they don’t try too hard. Give a 110% at that level, and you are much more likely to move to other levels and have more opportunities.

Q: What do you think makes Lincoln University a great place to study?

A: Lincoln is a small university in NZ. There are about 3,091 students according to the brochure. We are a specialist university. The areas we specialize in are the areas in which NZ specializes. Number one, export/dairy industry, number two is tourism and so on. The key focus is research, food, food innovation, farming (arable and pastoral), dairy, tourism, and the agriculture industry. We are suited for the place that we are in, the country we are in. We also have the highest percentage of graduates who get jobs in relevant fields/occupations of any of the universities in NZ. Students come to us for our specializations. Students that come out of Lincoln have a qualification, that’s aligned to the industry with the skills that are needed for industry.

I have been at Lincoln for 15 years. In the tourism field, we have tourism organizations, if they are looking for an employee, they come to Lincoln. They know from experience, the graduates we produce are industry-ready and have the skills that organizations are looking for.

Q: Is there a message that you would like to share with international students?

A: Enjoy your education! This is a great opportunity. Focus on things that matter, which is quite broad: the work-life balance, making friends, having experiences, studying something that you can be passionate about, that you can see yourself using for 20, 30, 40 years. I can’t say do what your parents want you to do – I didn’t. It’s a positive opportunity; make the most of it.




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