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International students James Beaton, left, Richard Kark and Mahin Khan inspect a Canadian $20 bill during a break in trivia night hosted by UBC’s Jump Start program. Mr. Beaton and Mr. Kark hail from the United States; Mr. Khan comes from Pakistan. (Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail)
International students James Beaton, left, Richard Kark and Mahin Khan inspect a Canadian $20 bill during a break in trivia night hosted by UBC’s Jump Start program. Mr. Beaton and Mr. Kark hail from the United States; Mr. Khan comes from Pakistan. (Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail)

How Canadian schools are helping international students fit in Add to ...

Thousands of international students who study at Canada’s universities and colleges each year arrive eager to integrate themselves into the country’s culture, but a majority still don’t, putting pressure on schools to provide more help for them to fit in.

Some 58 per cent of international students in Canada report having very few or no Canadian friends, according to a survey of 1,509 such students in Canada, to be published this fall by the Canadian Bureau for International Education. Even though the students overwhelmingly describe Canadians as welcoming and friendly, 78 per cent say they want more chances to experience Canadian culture and family life.

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For years, universities and colleges have worked fervently to attract more foreign students, trumpeting the benefits they bring to Canada economically and in diversifying campuses. But large numbers of foreign students still struggle to find their place. And with greater numbers of students arriving from abroad each year, and millions of federal dollars driving an ambition to double Canada’s international enrolment by 2022, more schools are trying to match their recruiting efforts with robust programs to help students settle.

The first few weeks can be crucial in getting new international students truly engaged, educators say – and keeping some from retreating to the corners of campus that feel most familiar. That first impression, before the strain of classes and exams takes its toll, can have a lasting impact on whether talented students stay in Canada – or stay connected to it – after moving on.

Most universities and colleges offer international students extra orientation beyond the general frosh week, often over a few days focused on the practical matters of putting down roots in a new place – getting a Canadian phone number and health insurance, and learning where to eat on campus, for example. But the Canadian Bureau for International Education survey suggests many students are still getting too little support.

At the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, the Green Path program is an attempt to change that. An intensive 12-week summer prep course, it allows top students from China to spend their first summer in Canada brushing up their English skills while getting a social and academic head start. Earlier this month, about 225 students gathered, dressed to impress, for their graduation from the program. Grads say the experience made them more confident, but some still expected that adapting to Canadian life would be hard.

“I think it would be really difficult to make new friends – I mean foreign friends – because we’re from different cultures,” says Dong Yanxi, 19. To illustrate her point, she recalls a U of T administrator cracking a joke during his speech at the graduation ceremony: “Some instructors, they laughed, and we had no idea why they laughed.”

Canada is not the only country where students struggle to integrate – research shows competing destinations like the United Kingdom grapple with the same issue. But while Ms. Dong’s friend, 19-year-old Wenyi Luo, is still “not totally comfortable” in Canada, she stresses that the Green Path experience has made her “more comfortable than when we just came here.”

Testimonials like hers have convinced some schools to pour extra resources into rolling out an early welcome mat.

At the University of British Columbia, 1,100 international and aboriginal students spent nearly half of August in Jump Start, an ambitious introduction to all aspects of their new life, including academic work. Groups of 30 are led by a professor and two senior students, divided by faculty, “but certainly not by nationality, because the whole point is, let’s learn something new,” says Damara Klaassen, senior director at UBC’s International Student Initiative.

Starting with a pick-up at the airport, the program’s two intensive weeks mix academic lectures with workshops on living independently and plenty of social events, like talent shows and dancing nights. Many universities offer events like these, but stretching them over two weeks and getting professors involved remains rare, not to mention costly, which may help explain why few schools have followed suit: The programming is free, but students are asked to pay up to $1,240 for room and board.

Students insist it was worth it. “It helps a lot, for real,” says Giulio Sucar Pregnolato, 18, who came to UBC from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to study biomedical science. “It removes the sense that you’re alone in a huge pond of other people. You just feel inserted more.”

All international students are expected to attend Jump Start, which is academically inclined and intended to be more than “a social acclimatization,” Ms. Klaassen says. Its students form something of a family, and formal mentoring continues through their first year, but they are urged to use it “as a starting point” to reach out to classmates and residence neighbours once school starts – and that seems to be working.

“I haven’t seen that much sticking around with people from your country,” says Hussein Kanaan, 18, who grew up in Lebanon and finished high school in England. “That was really interesting and, in a way, surprising.”

The instinct to form cliques around nationality is something the U of T’s Green Path administrators are keen to guard against. The “GPers” all hail from China, often speak Mandarin to each other, and grow tight-knit after 12 weeks together taking classes, cooking, having camp fires and going on field trips to Niagara Falls and the Toronto Zoo. On the one hand, Green Path graduates are part of a growing family. At the same time, instructors constantly urge them to break out of that bubble and go exploring.

“What that means is getting involved in clubs – not just the silo clubs like the Chinese students’ association, but other clubs, like biology,” says Jack Martin, U of T Scarborough’s director of business development and international programs. “It’s always a challenge because all people have difficulty sometimes getting out of their own comfort zone.”

The university has also started offering the students co-op and work opportunities to help them forge connections outside the university. “That's part of that internationalization that we talk about, the globalizing effect of these kinds of programs. It spills into much broader associations,” says U of T Scarborough principal Franco Vaccarino.

By the same token, Canada has a long-term stake in nurturing better integration. Schools and governments invest heavily in attracting international students, who bring talent, entrepreneurial spirit and billions of dollars in economic activity each year. And with the Canadian Experience Class, the federal government has shown a desire to put foreign students with work experience on a faster track to permanent residency. But whether Canada continues to benefit from today’s international class in future years depends heavily on whether they feel part of Canadian society.

When surveyed, international students often say “the No. 1 thing that makes them reticent about staying in Canada is they don't really know what they would do after the degree – they have no Canadian experience, they don't have a network in Canada,” says Arvind Gupta, CEO of Mitacs, which helps connect students to research and work opportunities in the private sector.

Dr. Gupta has been encouraged to see universities offering more training in skills like teamwork and networking, as well as Canada’s working culture, and hopes mentorship and integration efforts will continue to grow. “When you have a social network of peers and other students, you feel much more comfortable,” he says.

“You feel like, ‘I could be here.’”

The Canadian Bureau for International Education surveyed 1,509 international students in Canada as part of its annual report to be published this fall – A World of Learning: Canada’s Performance and Potential in International Education, 2013.

Breakdown of respondents:

51 per cent male

47 per cent female

2 per cent didn’t say

33 per cent came from East Asia (primarily China)

15 per cent from South Asia (primarily India)

15 per cent from Europe

10 per cent from Middle East/North Africa

10 per cent from Africa

9 per cent from Latin America and the Caribbean

5 per cent from the United States

3 per cent from Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Less than 1 per cent from Oceania and South Pacific

The responses:

Canadian students are hard to get to know.

45 per cent agree

33 per cent disagree

22 per cent neither agree nor disagree

I prefer to mix with people from my own culture.

31 per cent agree

39 per cent disagree

29 per cent neither agree nor disagree

I would like more chances to experience Canadian culture and family life.

78 per cent agree

5 per cent disagree

17 per cent neither agree nor disagree

Who makes up most of your friends?

58 per cent report not having Canadian friends or having very few Canadian friends

35 per cent say a mixture of Canadian and other international students

8 per cent say primarily Canadians

Some of the numbers have been rounded and will therefore not add up to 100.

Follow on Twitter: @jembradshaw

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