Lost Voices, Untapped Potential: Are International Students being left in the shadows?

A lecture hall full of students

Lost Voices, Untapped Potential: Are International Students being left in the shadows?

How can charities better engage young minority audiences? This week, we're looking at university life and where there are opportunities to better engage international students, as experienced by our own Aymen Habib.

Aymen Habib

Despite the best intentions of many charities, there’s still a huge gap when it comes to reaching ethnic minorities in the UK. This gap is even wider for those who immigrate to this country later in their lives, either to pursue further education or to work. My experience, along with many of my colleagues, makes me question; why is there a charitable disconnect when it comes to international minority communities?  

The international student community is growing at significant rate in the UK, where there are currently 679,970 international students. If we compare this number to year 2020/21, this community has grown at a rate of 12.3% (Higher Education Statistics Agency). As we are close to launching our next wave of Minority Ethnic Audiences Research, I strongly feel that it is high time to talk about the disconnect between non-profit originations and their approach towards this segment of the population. In this blog, I will share my personal experiences and shed light on the importance of bridging this gap and widening charitable engagement in the UK.  

One morning, as I was grabbing a coffee from café Nero, I came across a pamphlet by MIND – an organisation providing mental health services in local communities in England and Wales. I was not only surprised to find out about the working of this organisation after a year of living in the UK. But, also wondered how helpful it would’ve been during my early months in the country, when I struggled to build a support system. Moving from Pakistan, where community-based living is common, to a country with prevalence of individualistic lifestyle, I often had no one to talk to when I faced difficult situations. During these strenuous times, having a listening ear and someone who understands my situation would’ve been really helpful. However, alongside these thoughts, there was a feeling of alienation and distrust, mainly springing from a lack of information on and engagement of charities with my community.  

Coming from a family deeply involved in charity work back home, I arrived with a burning desire to continue making a difference. However, I was taken aback by the disheartening reality that the working of charitable organisations was barely visible in the UK – especially to those who didn’t previously spend a significant portion of their lives in the country. Despite the presence of these organisations, they were enigmatic, functioning in the shadows without reaching out to the international student population. It was a realisation that left me feeling disconnected from the issues that I care about. This feeling is not unique to me; it is shared by many overseas students who wish to contribute and be a part of something significant.  

Engaging overseas students has enormous potential, not just for the students but also for organisations interested in understanding charitable behaviours within minority communities. Charities can develop a symbiotic connection that crosses boundaries, fosters compassion, and empowers change-makers by building bridges and actively involving these youngsters. Moreover, a large number of international students stay in the country post-graduation, forming a currently untapped group of long-term donors. But most people from this group that I know prefer sending donations back home and/or giving directly to people-in-need, rather than donating to organisations here. I believe it’s important to question why that is if we want to capitalise on the potential of this growing segment.  

This engagement gap, in my experience, stems from publicity failing reaching these groups, and so awareness about the charitable work that these organisations do suffers. Raising awareness about their mission, aims, and work is key to enhancing engagement, not just within this segment but also within the wider public. In my opinion, if charities collaborate with universities and student-run societies through workshops, information sessions, and impactful awareness campaigns, it will not only raise awareness but also increase engagement – both in terms of donations and volunteering.  

As an international student at the University of Sussex, I saw countless corporate organisations running such initiatives but barely came across any NGOs during my time there. It made me feel that simple brand recognition isn’t enough - it is necessary to engage audiences in your work. Such initiatives can help international minority communities to gain insights into the workings of the charities, familiarise themselves with the causes, and see how their talents and interests connect with these deserving endeavours.


To learn more about our research with under-researched audiences, consider downloading a briefing pack below or get in touch with us at insight@nfpresearch.com

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