Camille Pulido, a 22-year-old from the Philippines, received a special back-to-school welcome from her Vancouver Island college this fall: a fresh food hamper delivered weekly until early October.
The gesture by Camosun College is among wide-ranging efforts by colleges to assist students, including those from abroad, disrupted by COVID-19.
Ms. Pulido, who had hours cut from her part-time job and, like all students, now studies online, featured Camosun’s in-person deliveries in her YouTube postings on life in Canada. “It helped me a lot, not just for my necessary essentials,” says the second-year business marketing student. “[Camosun staff] were very helpful and showed they truly care for their students and don’t want them to feel lonely.”
With postsecondary campuses effectively closed since March – and the Canadian border shut for months by the pandemic – some international students were already here on study visas while others eligible to come put off their arrival. Overseas students enrolled for the fall, but because they lacked visa documents, they had to begin their studies online in their home countries.
“There is tremendous financial hardship for international students right now,” says Bryn de Chastelain, board chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, noting the pandemic left some students unable to return home because of border closings while others working here lost employment.
One measure of COVID’s impact is a steep decline in college-level study-permit holders approved this year – 66,825 in the first eight months of this year, down from 155,365 in the same period in 2019, according to the federal department of immigration, refugees and citizenship.
In a recent announcement hailed by higher education officials, the department eased travel restrictions for overseas students as of Oct. 20. But some visa application centres (for fingerprint and photo documents) remain closed, including India, the biggest source country for Canada’s colleges.
“With the centres still closed, and varying levels of travel restrictions around the world, it means [international] students are still facing barriers,” says Denise Amyot, president and chief executive of Colleges and Institutes Canada. Still, she commends the border re-opening as “a step in the right direction.”
At Camosun, about 1,400 international students enrolled this semester, down from pre-COVID levels of 2,100, with more than half from India and China.
When COVID hit, “we recognized there was a lot of fear and anxiety,” says Christiaan Bernard, director of Camosun International, the college’s overseas recruitment department.
In response, Camosun published a newsletter for international students on virtual services and tapped its foundation for gift cards worth up to $500 a week for domestic and overseas students. Hamper deliveries may resume in January.
For overseas students required to quarantine for 14 days on arrival, the college negotiated reduced hotel rates, offered workshops on academic topics and donated $100 a student for groceries.
Camosun views international students as potential Canadians after graduation.
“The experience they have now will influence who they are in the future and how they interact with Canada,” Mr. Bernard says.
Still, some question why colleges offered no tuition break, especially for those now studying online overseas.
“You are paying top dollar for the Canadian experience,” says Amit Jalan, managing director of Enbee Education Centre, a major language training and student recruitment agency in India that works with institutions here.
While complimenting colleges on their pandemic efforts, he chides “they should have and could have offered that [discount]. They chose not to offer it.”
Instead, colleges took varying approaches, including a waiver on insurance and some on-campus fees (given international students were not physically present), a tuition freeze, and options to pay by course instead of paying for the entire program before the start of the semester.
In any case, colleges contend that enriched online learning triggered extra costs.
“We worked hard with the faculty to ensure the quality of education being delivered was equal to that of the programs and courses delivered on campus,” says Brad Van Dam, director of international education at Vancouver-based Langara College, with about 4,400 enrolled international students, of which 450 are currently studying in their home countries. He says Langara deferred summer admittance for 750 international students until this fall, waiting to enrich online programming.
The college established an emergency bursary fund of $374,000 for domestic and international students, provided food vouchers and expanded laptop and internet support.
Among those eager to study in Canada is Paola Montenegro, who enrolled this fall in an architecture technology diploma program at Centennial College in Toronto. Awaiting her study visa, she learns online from home in Lima, Peru.
When accepted by Centennial this year, she says: “I thought I was going on an upward path and then the pandemic hit. I felt I was in the middle of a tornado.”
In addition to online classes, she participates in weekly, college-arranged peer mentoring sessions and has virtual access to free tutoring and library resources. “All the professors have been really helpful,” she says.
Of Centennial’s 14,000 international students, one-third are offshore pending immigration approval to study here, says Virginia Macchiavello, associate vice-president of international education.
One pandemic silver lining was a federal rule change permitting online study from abroad.
“COVID catapulted us into the future,” says Ms. Macchiavello, driving demand for high-quality online instruction. This year, Centennial redesigned 50 of its most popular programs for interactive-rich virtual delivery.
At Nova Scotia Community College, in a province eager for international students to remain after graduation, addressing pandemic anxiety was essential.
The college “ramped up immigration advising support,” says Katie Orr, director of NSCC International. “We wanted to make sure students had access to the best available [advice] and information.” NSCC also expanded a laptop loan program for students financially pinched.
NSCC turned to international student “ambassadors” at its 14 campuses in the province to recruit their peers for virtual college webinars, including how to apply for internships that could lead to postgraduation employment.
Yasemin Arslan, from Turkey, enrolled at NSCC in 2019 for a two-year diploma in industrial engineering technology. Like everyone, she had to switch to online learning this year.
“I really appreciate my instructors because they make an additional effort to bring us all together,” she says, also praising the availability of online, non-classroom supports including language training, résumé preparation and counselling.
For Canada, where international students contributed $21.6-billion to the economy in 2018, the pandemic tests its reputation as an attractive study destination.
The pandemic-sparked college supports are “foundational pieces” in reputation-building, says Larissa Bezo, president and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education. “They shore up why Canada should continue to be a destination of choice,” she says.