the blip-blip-bloop of the classic Skype ringtone connects me with Zack (Guanglong) Pang at Wilfrid Laurier
University, it occurs to me that a little box like this on a
computer screen may be the only window through which
this international student has seen his family for the past
few years – they live half a world away in his hometown
of Shenyang, an industrial city in the northeastern part
of China. Mr. Pang, who at the time of this interview was
finishing his bachelor of science degree at Laurier and preparing for a
master’s in geography at York University starting this fall, cheerfully
returns my wave at the screen.
Despite the barriers of sterile IP telephony, his personality comes
through and it’s clear why he’s considered an international-student success story. He’s done all the right things, like going to his university’s writing centre for help so often that by his final year he was invited to become
a tutor; intentionally pursuing friendships with domestic students even
though it would be so much less effort to speak in his own language; and
feigning interest in topics that he knew nothing about (at least at first),
such as hockey, just so he could build relationships with his four domestic
roommates. Even living with domestic roommates is often too much of a
challenge for many international students.
Internationalization has become a major goal of Canada’s universities, and with the number of international students on a steady rise –
they’ve more than doubled, from 83,000 in 2006 to more than 175,000
in 2016, according to Universities Canada – there’s a growing recognition
that supports must be in place to help them succeed. In response, universities are boosting the services of their international centres and connecting
earlier. Airport pickups upon arrival, orientation sessions and ongoing social events aimed specifically at international students are now common.
At Laurier, where 1,000 international students account for just over
five percent of the school’s 19,000 student population, recruiters and
alumni make contact via pre-departure orientations that address not
only students but their doting parents. At York University, which counts
around 6,000 undergrads and 900 graduate students from abroad, representing 12 and 15 percent of their respective student populations, predeparture activities include a Global Connections interactive webinar series
organized by a team of “global liaisons” – international students hired to
communicate as early as June with the fall cohort on topics from university services to food options on campus.
Marilyn Lambert-Drache, York’s associate vice-president, interna-
tional, says such early contact helps connect newcomers with university
resources and friendly faces onscreen. “It happens frequently that a new
student comes to our international office during orientation and recog-
nizes a global liaison, saying ‘Oh, I saw you on my computer screen, and
you gave me good advice,’” she says.
Touching down in Canada is an important moment for international
students. At Memorial University, where 2,500 of the 18,000-plus student
population is international, more than 400 students arrive every fall.
“It’s like managing some crazy conference where everybody’s arriving at
a different time,” says Sonja Knutson, director of the university’s internationalization office. So, she’s automated the process: a new app allows
students to register their arrival time so that student staff members can
arrange to pick them up. Other innovations include a housing website
with listings vetted by locals to defend against fraudulent landlords and a
multitude of Facebook groups organized by country of origin.
Hesam Hassan Nejad, who arrived at Memorial from Iran in 2012 to
do a PhD in oil and gas engineering and is now on the executive of the
graduate student union, says the initial airport pickup, complete with food
and essentials, made him feel welcome. “When you’re in a new environ-
ment it’s difficult to get to know new people, find connections, and the
language barrier is always there,” says Mr. Hassan Nejad. “Specifically, at
the beginning, you feel stressed and your anxiety is high because you feel
that you’re alone.”
To alleviate that angst, the next steps after landing are all about lo-
gistics. International centres offer coaching on everything from medical
and insurance requirements to school regulations and immigration de-
tails. Staff members are also there for crises of all kinds, like visa issues
or collaborating on a financial plan when the Zimbabwean dollar turns
worthless. Many university career centres offer dedicated staff to help
overcome the challenges of preparing resumés for the Canadian market
(universities set aside some funds to help hire international students for
part-time, on-campus jobs).
While helping students navigate these practicalities is important,
helping them figure out the intangibles is also crucial. Ben Yang, formerly
an international graduate student from Beijing, recalls the challenges
firsthand and has devoted his career to helping students succeed – first
asexecutive director of the international student centre at the University of Toronto, then as director of international learning and training
at Georgian College and now as Laurier’s director of global engagement.
To tackle the social and cultural barriers, Mr. Yang has established
a variety of activities for his international population. As an example,
Laurier’s International Students’ Association hosts regular events on