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Supporting mature international students

They have unique characteristics and needs that may not be met by existing programs.


With an increase in the number of international students coming to Canada, many postsecondary institutions (PSIs) continue to grapple with how to best support their international student population. Unfortunately, the bulk of the programming is often tailored to meet the needs of the majority – that is, the younger postsecondary student – thereby ignoring other groups such as mature international students.

These older students may be mid-career professionals, they may be married and have relocated to Canada with a spouse and children. They may have been out of school for several years and already have some work experience. Demarcations around criteria used to define mature international students may differ across PSIs; however, what remains consistent is that older international students arrive with their own set of challenges.

As a result, existing programming may not meet their unique characteristics and needs, and any programming that is exclusively targeted towards them may experience a low turnout, discouraging PSIs and international student departments from catering explicitly to this group. However, such no-shows or low focus on mature international students run the risk of this group being ignored by PSIs and left to their own devices. To avoid such situations, PSIs should take a more proactive approach to understanding their distinct needs and characteristics before planning how best to support them. Here are a few points that PSIs can reflect on when it comes to supporting this group:

1) The generation gap

Older international students are more likely to have a larger gap between the last time they were students and their current academic pursuits. This gap can make it harder for them to adjust to being a student once again. Further, the way they previously studied or the content that they were exposed to may be outdated. Their expectations relating to how to behave – in class, with faculty, and with peers could also be different. They are faced with familiarizing themselves with a new academic culture on top of needing to learn about current issues/theories/knowledge.

PSIs can assist by reaching out to mature international students in advance or connecting them with staff who can help them navigate and prepare for their new academic demands. Connecting them with existing students or alumni before they start the program could also prove useful, as it may help them to know what to expect and what faculty expect of them.

2) Impostor phenomenon x 2

Older students are likely to have more life and work experience, which may give them a stronger sense of self and trust in their abilities. But when facing a new academic environment with different norms and expectations, these students run the risk of being unprepared or unable to contribute to the dominant western-centric discourse prevalent in Canada. All international students may struggle with writing academic papers in English. For older students, who might have achieved some success in their professional lives, being unable to deliver what their younger peers can adds to their sense of impostor phenomenon. PSIs can offer support by designing spaces for them to contribute their knowledge in and outside of class. For instance, faculty can design class activities that allow these students to share their relevant experiences.

3) Responsibilities x 4

Older international students tend to have more responsibilities that compete for their time. I categorize these into four types: responsibility

  • to self
  • to family
  • to extended family
  • and to work/community

For instance, they may be the primary earner who needs to care for their immediate family in Canada as well as for their extended family back home, which adds an extra layer of responsibility. In contrast, younger international students may only have family responsibilities in their home country. Further, unlike in their home countries, in Canada, mature international students often start their educational program and settle into a new country almost simultaneously, making it harder for them to manage their many roles, some of which may still be unfamiliar to them, and to juggle the many related tasks. As their responsibilities grow so does the demand for their time, making it harder for them to focus on their education.

By understanding the context around the increased responsibilities of older international students, PSIs can make efforts to offer programming that accounts for the additional challenges they face, such as planning family-friendly programming, offering programming at multiple time slots or offering other participation options such as asynchronous or virtual. Such initiatives that consider student responsibilities could lead to greater participation by mature international students, improving their student experience.

 4) Programming for engagement

Offering programs that consider student responsibilities is useful; however, an increase in student attendance does not necessarily lead to an increase in their engagement. Failing to engage students who have limited spare time could discourage them from attending subsequent programs, causing them to miss out on a valuable part of the student experience.

When designing programs, it is important for PSIs to consider the life stage of older students who may not relate to topics or methods that engage their younger peers. For instance, when running workshops on financial literacy, older students are likely to have different goals and concerns than their younger counterparts. Modifying workshop content to reflect the needs of those in a different life stage could increase their attendance and engagement.

Older international students often deal with the obstacles encountered by their younger counterparts (finance, new academic culture, low sense of belonging). But these are in addition to the challenges they face as mature learners and in some situations, common international student challenges are compounded for this group, owing to their different stage of life. PSIs that give consideration to the distinct characteristics and subsequent needs of this group can help support these older students as they embark on a new journey as students once again.

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].

Alison D’Cruz is a higher education professional and a PhD student in education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.
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  1. Otuto AC / April 3, 2023 at 17:17

    This is a very thoughtful post. Many a time, our education system perpetuates subtle injustices, like the one Alison writes about, without even knowing (or maybe knowingly even).
    It is important to consider ‘mature’ students, their peculiarities, and how to meet their learning needs.

  2. Wafaa El-Osta / April 9, 2023 at 13:47

    Very well put Alison…this is a great analysis and the problem has other new local facets to it as International Students in Canada just got permits to work and placement, while placement ‘offices and departments’ are not well equipped for the new numbers of applicants and as they are not ‘job’ ready even at the application process level. I can provide more on this perspective, DM me if interested.

  3. Are we having a systematic problem? The needs and challenges you described in this article are not unique to “mature international students”. They were identified among the high school students; unfortunately, No research has formally addressed this problem among high school population yet. See summary of the preliminary findings from the EMSB-Marymount Academy International team, as part of their project while participating in the 2022-2023 Olympes de la Parole Canada School Competition at: