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In my opinion

How can universities help to support international students?

A few suggestions based on my own experience.

BY ALI NAJAF | JUL 22 2019

According to statistics from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, at the end of 2018 there were 572,415 international students with a valid study permit in Canada studying at all levels of education. This was a 16-percent increase over the previous year and the numbers continue to increase.

Aside from the good quality of the Canadian education system, one of the key reasons that brought me to Canada, and I’m sure many other international students would say the same, is Canada’s reputation as a tolerant and non-discriminatory society. It is one of the few countries where diversity is not only accepted but celebrated.

An incredible experience

International students are contributing to the cultural and social growth in Canada and are enriching the educational experience of Canadian students at all levels of education. We create a global village in Canada in which all students, Canadian and international, can have a taste of the multicultural climate they’ll face as tomorrow’s leaders. That ties into the larger picture of how much international students contribute to the cultural and social growth of communities across Canada.

My experiences as an international student have been incredible. I’ve formed close relationships with people from all over the world, learned about their cultures, and become a mentor for other international students. These are all things I had never done back home, and may never have had the chance to do in such a meaningful way until I arrived here.

Nevertheless, there are still various issues and challenges faced by international students:

  • Culture: One of the key challenges that students face is integrating into the community and adapting to Canadian cultural norms and making new friendships.
  • The education system: Adapting to the education system takes a lot of time due to different teaching styles, such as the bell curve, big class sizes, and the fact that material is delivered in a different language.
  • Lifestyle: Upon arriving in Canada, the initial challenges students face is finding suitable accommodation, navigating transit systems and adapting to the new cuisine and weather.

Based on my own experience, here are a few suggestions of how universities can support international students at various stages to help make their time here in Canada remarkable. Of course, many universities are doing some of this already.

General support

  • Training to staff: Universities can provide training to the staff who deal with international students and offer an optional course to faculty and staff to learn and raise awareness about other cultural norms, so they know how to provide support and make international students comfortable in conversations.
  • Global community centre: Universities can set up a global community centre, a space for international students to engage, to meet with other international students and to ask questions and get help from international counselors.

Pre-arrival support:

  • Buddy program: Universities can create mentorship program where they can match the current international student with incoming international student from the same country if possible, so the incoming student can ask questions and learn about the Canadian lifestyle and things needed, etc. from a student perspective before arrival.
  • Mandatory pre-arrival course: Universities can create a pre-arrival course for students which include all information like a checklist of things to do before arrival, Canadian culture, finding accommodation and resources so students are well prepared before arrival.

First-week support:

  • Arrival in Canada: Universities can arrange airport pick-up for international students and pairing them with a student mentor to make their first day in Canada pass smoothly.
  • University accommodation: If the student is living in a university residence, the administration can arrange bedding for their dorms at additional cost on arrival day, and work with the dining hall team to create a diverse food menu to accommodate student needs and raise awareness about global cuisines.
  • Orientation week: Universities can make the first week a “getting started” or orientation week, where mentors can help international students learn how to navigate the local transit system, phone and internet set-up, bank accounts, and to help familiarize them with nearby attractions.

Continuing support:

  • Coffee chats: University can start a program of coffee chats for international students to discuss various issues, as many of the students feel too shy to ask for help.
  • Community field trips: Universities can arrange community field trips to local attractions, so students can see Canadian attractions and make new friends.
  • Peer mentorship programs: Universities can set up mentorship programs by pairing local students with international students, so they can learn about the Canadian culture, get support from a student perspective, attend events and make new connections.
  • Post-graduation support: Once a student graduates, the support should not end there; rather, universities could offer support to students up to three years post-graduation, so students can feel supported and make their transitions to work go more smoothly.

Ali Najaf is a recent graduate of the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University. He is a recipient of the Beedie Business Award for International Students and the SFU International Award for Intercultural Engagement.

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  1. Whittney / July 31, 2019 at 23:04

    Thank you so much for sharing this! As someone who has worked with thousands of international students, all of these suggestions sound very sound to me. A highlight of my previous job was working with international students, and I truly believe they bring so much to the university experience for all students! I’m always looking for ways to better support them 🙂