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Ankita Rastogi, a computer systems technology student at Saskatchewan Polytechnic in Saskatoon, travelled to Mexico City as part of an international internship sponsored by Scotiabank and Colleges and Institutes Canada.

Earlier this year, Ankita Rastogi, a computer systems technology student at Saskatchewan Polytechnic in Saskatoon, travelled outside her comfort zone to Mexico City as part of an international internship sponsored by the Bank of Nova Scotia and Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan).

Ms. Rastogi was one of two college students in Canada selected to spend four months learning Spanish, living with a host family in Mexico City and working at Scotiabank’s Digital Factories as a front-end developer – but at first she didn’t even want to apply.

“I was confused whether I should do it or not because I was leaving my family and what I knew,” says the 20-year-old. “ But I understand that employers are looking for people like me who have this type of experience, who know how industry works and have technical knowledge as well.”

And she is right. Studies show that employers are looking for global experience, and that Canada’s economy would benefit from more students going abroad, but according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), only 1.1 per cent of full-time college students study abroad annually, and the biggest barrier remains financial.

Canada’s college students need more international experience if they are going to keep up with the global marketplace and have the skills that many employers say they are looking for, but many colleges lack the funding to ensure all of their students can access internships or studying abroad.

“Canada is behind big time compared to other countries when it comes to outbound student mobility,” says Denise Amyot, president and chief executive officer of CICan. “We get lots of international students [in Canada] at a postsecondary level, but we have very few that go overseas.”

Indeed, the CBIE reports that approximately 30 per cent of German students, 10 per cent of U.S. students and 13 per cent of Australians go abroad at some point during their studies.

“International experiences are increasingly important in an ever more interconnected world. Given geopolitical and trade realities, Canada urgently needs to cultivate students with open minds and global competencies that can help to advance Canada’s diplomatic and trade relationships abroad,” says Larissa Bezo, interim president and CEO of CBIE

Experts and organizations such as CICan and CBIE have begun lobbying for federal government support to fund more international opportunities, saying that without the experience, Canadian college students are losing out on job opportunities.

“You have to stay competitive in a globalized economy,” says Ms. Amyot. “So you have to invest in student mobility because this is what will pay off from a trade perspective, from a prosperity perspective.”

“What we are pushing for is providing 25 per cent of students with an international learning experience within the next 10 years,” she adds, “but for that we need the support of the federal government.

Money is definitely the main issue that is holding back Canada’s college students from having an international experience. But another significant problem is that, unlike the U.S., the EU and Australia, Canada has “no national strategy to enable Canadian students to go global,” according to a 2017 report by the Study Group on Global Education at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto and the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa.

The report warns that, “under the status quo, Canada will continue to dawdle as other countries take bold steps to equip their young people for tomorrow’s world.” It advises Canadian businesses and government both help find and fund more global study and work experience for Canadian postsecondary students.

But some Canadian colleges are not waiting for the government to step up. College of the Rockies (COTR), in Cranbrook, B.C., has a reputation as the No. 1 destination for international college students. Now the college is increasing its focus on global experiences for its Canadian students.

“There is increasing recognition that internationalization is an important part for colleges like ours to equip our students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will allow them to succeed in the modern work force,” says Kerry Brinkert, manager of international projects and partnerships at COTR. “And that’s no different whether you’re in a big city like Vancouver or in the east Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia.”

This fall, students at COTR were given a “menu” of international opportunities they could participate in, according to Mr. Brinkert, which ranged from a trip to Geneva for third-year global health nursing students, to studies in the microstate of Andorra in the Pyrenees mountains for the college’s adventure tourism students. The college has set aside up to $40,000 in funds and scholarships to help with the financial costs associated with these trips.

“We’re not just throwing out opportunities to see if they stick, we are working with our students to see what they want and what the value-add would be,” explains Mr. Brinkert, adding that global awareness and intercultural competencies are skills needed in every profession.

For Ms. Rastogi, despite her trepidation in the beginning, her time in Mexico City was a game changer, both personally and for her résumé.

“Going to a different country really helped me get out of my own comfort zone and to overcome [my] fears,” she explains.

“I learned a whole new language, but I also got to use my studies and experiences and incorporate those in a new place with new people, learning how to work in teams and independently,” says Ms. Rastogi. “I also learned how things work in the actual work force in a different place.”

Next year, Scotiabank and CICan plans to expand the program and number of students it selects to take part in the four-month internship in Mexico City.

Social entrepreneurs abroad

Young people are increasingly looking beyond the classroom, and even beyond Canada. At Lambton College in Sarnia, that involved 25 trips to Zambia over six years to help villages there achieve their goals of food security, health care, clean water and education, among others.

The school’s social innovation project was recognized earlier this month when it was crowned world champion at the 2018 Enactus World Cup, the first Canadian college to compete and to take the top prize at the social entrepreneurship competition. Lambton competed against 30 other international college and university teams.

Denise Amyot, the president and chief executive officer of Colleges and Institutes Canada, says that the win is a testament to the growing international presence of Canadian colleges.

“People develop their creativity, they develop their self-confidence, they develop this awareness of another culture [through these kinds of projects].”

She adds that employers also want applicants who have been exposed to other cultures to develop adaptability and real-world problem-solving competencies to go alongside their academic credentials.

“The best way to develop those abilities is spending time abroad or at least in another province or territory where students are exposed to different cultures, languages and practices,” she says.

- Paul Attfield

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