Learning from students

International Students from several countries had come together recently to participate in a conference.  Originally from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Korea, Colombia, Jordan, Mexico, India, China and many other parts of the world, having opted to study in Canada they are now enrolled in leading Canadian educational institutions.

What had prompted them to select Canada over other popular destinations like the US, Australia, the UK or Singapore etc.?  What hurdles did they face as they prepared for admission and what were some of the challenges they had to overcome upon landing in Canada?  It was fascinating to engage with these young minds and see Canada through the lens of their experiences.

The most common perception of Canada is that it is a safe, stable, peaceful country that respects other people.  Our cold winters, while considered a scary prospect by some nevertheless excited most students who believed it would provide a unique experience and opportunities to participate in winter sports and outdoor activities.  While tuition fees and living expenses certainly influenced their decision making, the reputation of Canadian educational institutions vis-à-vis other countries weighed heavy.  A number of them opted to study in a school in Canada because it was “scenic and looked so beautiful.”  Brexit and elections in the US are now strongly influencing students to consider Canada as a top study destination.

It is amazing how much information they were able to collect online and through social media, hooking up with friends and their peer group while living in a very small town or village in a remote area of a country that did not have the technology we take so much for granted here.  Picture a young person in his/her teens, who is catapulted from the familiar and safe home environment into a culture about which they know next to nothing.  Most of these students had very limited English/French language skills and had to enroll in ESL classes on arrival.  They added that this sort of defeated the purpose, as they ended up with other foreign students equally deficient in language skills when the pressing need was to converse with English/French speakers.

Imagine landing in Canada after a long flight and going through a large airport exhausted and scared, as everything looks, smells and sounds strange.  There are no friends or familiar faces to offer security and you do not know whether the cab fare being demanded is right, or a complete rip-off.  A student said she had been advised it was safe to take a cab from the airport even late at night as “unlike in America, there are no gangsters roaming the streets in Canada.”  Canadian institutions are to be credited for arranging welcoming committees to greet and assist students on arrival and help them overcome initial settlement issues.

One student told us how he made his way to the registration office to pay his tuition fees and complete the admission paperwork.  The school staff was aghast when the student proceeded to take out cash from his backpack and count out over $7,000 in bills of varying denominations!  It was his first introduction to a cashless society.

Another student recounted how he could not understand why everyone gave him dirty looks as he swung in and out of malls or subway stations.  It was only several months after his arrival in Ottawa when an accompanying friend observed his behavior and pointed out that is was considered rude not to hold open the door for those following behind.  He was also reminded of the concept of “private space” and not standing too close to others in an elevator or public place.  It took months for another student to figure out that saying “sorry” was a very Canadian way of being respectful even if one was not at fault.

Most participating students had been in Canada for between 1 to 3 years.  Not surprisingly, they missed their families and friends “back home” and said while Canadians are friendly and accepting it is not easy to “make Canadian friends.”  Still, they want to stay on in Canada because it is “the best place I have ever lived in!”

We take for granted all that others value so much.

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