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Support international graduate students by reaching out early

Partnership was key to University of Toronto’s pre-arrival orientation to working as a teaching assistant.


International graduate students arrive at universities with a multitude of experiences, expectations and needs, in search of better opportunities and futures for themselves and their family members. The pandemic has stimulated a renewed debate around international students and their experiences. On the one hand, it has shown promise for international students through a range of initiatives such as virtual exchange programs. On the other hand, it has also disrupted students’ life cycles, exposed the vulnerabilities they face, and called for better supports.

Recent focus groups and surveys with international graduate students that we have run at the University of Toronto have highlighted the need to recognize the holistic nature of transitioning into a new country and program of study (i.e. comprising professional, personal and academic dimensions) and for highly specialized and dedicated supports in specific areas of development, such as teaching. The work of others has confirmed the value of engaging early and often and for leveraging campus partnerships to support these students. Armed with similar aspirations and strategies, three institutional units at U of T– a teaching and learning unit, a centre for international experience, and student life – partnered to develop a pre-arrival e-orientation for international students to reach out early, before students arrived at the university, and use a holistic approach to the complexities of transition, all while zeroing in on teaching assistant onboarding. This is how we did it:

Engaging in partnership: a synthesis of expertise

Creating support and programming for international graduate students is most successful when it is a team sport. Collaboration through focused and reciprocal on-campus partnership expands the reach and improves the quality of programming. Each partner adds value to the work through their expertise.

A combination of diverse sets of experience, expertise and competencies can set the stage for valuable collaboration and student outcomes. In our project, the collaboration included three institutional hubs each focused on a distinct domain of work – on teaching and learning (Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation), on everything international (Centre for International Experience) and on student success (Academic Success). The aim was to create an orientation program with additional supports focused on helping international graduate students identify, train for and troubleshoot teaching opportunities. In our case, the partnership brought together an effective combination of expertise and competencies.

Engaging early and often: helping students connect the dots

Engaging graduate students early in their transition can have significant value on their academic and professional journey. Orientation is an important milestone as it sets the tone for the upcoming year and beyond. At U of T, a range of orientation programs are traditionally scheduled at the onset of the academic year. Our orientation program for international students interested in teaching opportunities aimed to reach students before they arrived in September. Its flipped model of four (self-paced) asynchronous modules and resources (e.g., knowledge-generating glossary of institutional terminology and acronyms), supplanted by synchronous mentoring Q&A sessions, allowed us to engage international graduate students early and in different ways. Module 1 provided an overview of teaching practices and resources for international students as students and teaching assistants in Canada and at U of T. Module 2 offered insights into the basics of working as a TA. Module 3 focused on teaching in an intercultural classroom. And Module 4 offered tips and suggestions for making the most out of a teaching experience. Moreover, the pre-arrival orientation conversations that were part of the program were also connected to intercultural teaching circles, providing another space to talk about ways to explore and leverage intercultural experiences.

Communications and awareness: preventing the messaging overload

Transitioning to a new learning and working environment requires navigating a range of different communication sources and mediums. Building strong relationships across units that support international graduate students in different ways and coordinating communications among those units about student onboarding and orientation mitigates messaging overload from different departments across campus. Equally important is offering students flexibility in modalities and channels. Asynchronous modules and websites designed with the incoming students in mind provide flexibility in how students engage with messaging and content. As we transition into the post-pandemic normal, the digital and virtual gains of the past two years should be continued for better access. International graduate students usually have a multitude of different priorities (funding, housing, family obligations, cultural transitions, etc.) and thinking about just-in-time messaging could play a positive role in their transition.

Flexibility and options: Listening to the needs of international graduate students

Creating a feedback culture around international graduate student programming is an important ingredient for success. Our ongoing needs assessments and focus groups continuously informed the evolution of our strategies. For example, feedback we received guided us to adapt the flipped model for the pre-arrival orientation programming: recording and chunking webinar content into shorter thematic videos and resources, all packaged into four asynchronous modules; then following these with synchronous sessions devoted to conversation and sharing of ideas and experiences. These improvements were a direct result from student feedback. Due to distinct time zones, these were also offered at different times of the day. Those who did not feel comfortable in a group setting could connect individually and students interested in continuing this conversation could join the intercultural teaching circles. Alternatively, international graduate students who had teaching concerns could join drop-in sessions that were organized at the beginning of each semester.

Reframing orientation from a one-day event to a multistage onboarding process constructs a collaborative space and will add tremendous value to the feeling of welcome and belonging within the graduate community. As international graduate students and fledgling teachers starting on their journey on a new campus these efforts have resulted in effective and satisfying teaching in the classes where they assist.

 This column is coordinated through the Internationalization of Student Affairs Community of Practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact [email protected].

Michal Kasprzak is assistant director for the teaching assistants’ training program (TATP) at University of Toronto. Dinuka Gunaratne is the director of the centre for graduate professional development at the University of Toronto’s school of graduate studies.
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