College and university students encounter many factors that affect their ability to succeed academically. For international students, the challenges that come with moving to a new country to study can be particularly complex and overwhelming (CBC News, 2023, Kaur, 2022).
“According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, there were 807,750 international students in Canada at all levels of study last year… More than half of those international students study in Ontario and an increasing number are enrolled in provincial colleges” (Keung, 2023). The CBC podcast Front Burner, hosted by Tamara Khandaker, notes that “The number of international students Canada brings in has been skyrocketing. [Federal] Immigration Minister Marc Miller says we’re expecting 900,000 students this year, which is almost triple the number we were bringing in a decade ago” (CBC Radio, 2023).
International students make up 30 percent of student enrolment in Ontario’s public colleges, with the tuition fees from these students amounting to $1.7 billion, or 68 percent of Ontario public colleges’ total tuition fee revenue in 2020 (Keung, 2023). The students I have spoken to report tuition fees for a two-semester graduate certificate program in an Ontario college in the range of $18,000, as opposed to the domestic students in the same program paying around $5,000.
While the influx of international students is a financial benefit to the colleges and universities, not all students are successful in making the transition into Canadian culture and academic structures, and there are some who fall prey to unscrupulous individuals. On March 12, 2023, for instance, CBC Radio aired the program Helluva Story, hosted by Duncan McCue (CBC Radio, 2023), with a segment called “The Dreams of my Father,” which detailed the struggles of two international students who tried to get the education they paid for here in Canada, but were essentially misled and cheated out of both money and their desired educational path.
What I have learned from my own experience teaching international students in a graduate certificate program in an Ontario college was not as traumatic and extreme as those detailed by Duncan McCue—at least not as far as I know—but over the years, students have shared many of their experiences with me, and there are a number of commonalities with the CBC podcast Helluva Story, many of which speak to a need for broader awareness by, and training for, professors, and more assistance made available by the higher education institutions to the international students.
While the students I have worked with come from many parts of the world, a majority are from India, Nigeria, China, and parts of South America. “Indian students accounted for 40 percent of the overall international enrolment, followed by Chinese students, at 12 percent” (Keung, 2023). For many of the students, this educational journey may not only be their first time out of their country but also their first time away from home, family, and friends. The students I worked with were primarily in their early twenties, but even so, the experience of leaving their homes and often tight knit families to come to Canada was a shock, and so is learning how to understand and navigate the Canadian approach to higher education (Kaur, 2022), while also coming to grips with Canadian culture.
Starting when they arrive at an airport, the students may, or may not, find transportation provided by their academic institution to get them to their temporary residence. While colleges do make efforts to help the students find accommodations, it is common practice for the students to have arranged a bed and breakfast type of situation for the first few days or weeks in the country while they seek out an inexpensive, longer term, living arrangement. When they do, they may very well find themselves in a small apartment—sometimes a basement apartment or a boarding house— where they may have to share rooms and facilities with three or four—or more—other students. Rent is likely to be more than they had anticipated, and it is possible that all the students in the apartment have to pay the same amount. Monthly rent payments by each resident student in an overcrowded apartment can easily run to $600 or higher (Kohli, 2022).
Classes usually begin a week or two after the students arrive, and in that time, they have to navigate a public transit system with which they are not familiar, find their way around their academic institution, and determine if their technology will work here, where their classes are, and what the professors are like, while they are also looking for part-time jobs in order to pay for everything and not make the financial burden for their families back home greater than it is already.
Getting to know their professors can be nerve-wracking. In some countries, professors are extremely strict, and won’t talk to students outside class. Some students have told me about professors in their home countries coming late to every class because being on time or early would be perceived as the professors being weak, but the students have to be on time. Some professors also don’t allow students to address them by name, only by title, and yelling at students is apparently not uncommon. Convincing some international students to call me by my first name has been very difficult— in some cases impossible—as the students cannot overcome the fear of being seen as disrespectful to a professor. Even after almost a year, one student told me she still couldn’t use my first name because my name was “too heavy in my mouth.” In other words, she would feel too disrespectful and rude if she were to call me by my first name. A mature student from an African country would stand up and bow when she saw me. Even if I passed her in the hallway, she would invariably stop and bow, causing very puzzled expressions on the faces of domestic students. Convincing international students that things are different here in Canada can be a challenge,
International students are sometimes so reluctant to seek help as they try to adjust that they put up with usurious rents, poor food, unsanitary living conditions, lack of proper winter clothing, being ostracized by other students, needing medical help, and so on. As some students try to balance their studies with their part-time work, it is not uncommon for students to be working nightshifts at minimum wage, part-time jobs, while trying to complete assignments and keep up their studies. It can happen that the occasional student falls asleep in class because of sheer mental and emotional exhaustion, and my advice to other faculty has been to let them sleep, and then have a chat with them later to see what help can be made available.
Meanwhile, loneliness and homesickness are constant and, at times, debilitating and extremely depressing companions. Strangers in a strange land, these students are trying to balance all their many responsibilities so they can complete their education, pay their parents or other relatives back, pay their own mounting debts, try to live up to parental expectations, and somehow earn the permanent residence card that will allow them to stay and work in Canada. Mental and physical illnesses follow many of them on that journey where failure is not an option. The racial slurs and other denigrating remarks that seem to follow them everywhere can feel even more hurtful and abrasive in that mental state, and so far from home.
On the last day of classes, I met with some of the international students for an informal chat about their experiences in what was, for most, their first eight months in Canada. When I asked what they wanted most from their professors when it came to working with newly arrived international students, the answer was—not surprisingly perhaps—that empathy and patience were very much appreciated. While much of the labyrinthian first-year journey for these students is challenging to the point of being overwhelming, the fact that there are professors who are aware and paying attention, is extremely meaningful and reassuring.
While Ontario colleges and universities are doing much to help international students acclimatize, especially in light of recent media stories about the treatment of international students, the attention paid, and help offered, by faculty can do much to make the transition to a foreign educational system in a foreign country considerably less distressing for the international students who will carry the memories of the help they received—or did not receive—with them into their new lives.
CBC News. (2023, March 16). Support needed for international students struggling to make ends meet. Retrieved from CBC News Windsor: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/international-students-food-pantry-uwindsor-1.6780887
CBC Radio. (2023, March 12). Helluva Story. Retrieved from CBCListen: https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-1337-helluva-story
CBC Radio. (2023, August 29). International students in Canada face discrimination, exploitation. Retrieved from Front Burner: https://www.cbc.ca/listen/cbc-podcasts/209-front-burner/episode/16006040-international-students-in-canada-face-discrimination-exploitation
Erudera.com. (2023). Canada International Student Statistics. Retrieved from Your Path To Education: https://erudera.com/statistics/canada/canada-international-student-statistics/#:~:text=British%20Columbia%20has%20the%20highest,1.7%25%20from%20the%20previous%20year.
Kaur, S. (2022, Oct. 21). Struggle of International Students in Canada You Must Know! Retrieved from Immigration News Canada: https://immigrationnewscanada.ca/struggle-of-international-students-in-canada-you-must-know/
Keung, N. (2023, March 16). Toronto Star. Retrieved from Ontario colleges move to protect international students, before and after they come to Canada: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2023/03/16/ontario-colleges-move-to-protect-international-students-before-and-after-they-get-to-canada.html#:~:text=Under%20the%20new%20rules%2C%20 orientation,pathways%20and%20processes%3B%20and%20post%2D
Kohli, P. (2022, Dec. 26). Cost of Living in Canada for Indian Students 2023. Retrieved from Shiksha Study Abroad: https://studyabroad.shiksha.com/cost-of-living-in-canada-for-international-students-articlepage-544
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Otte Rosenkrantz retired recently after a 26-year career as a professor at an Ontario college where he taught media relations, communications, writing, and ethics in the Public Relations and Corporate Communications graduate certificate program.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2024 issue.