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Same Campus, Worlds Apart Illustration by Melanie Lambrick.

Same Campus, Worlds Apart

International students are a huge boon to the economy, but as Carine Abouseif writes, bureaucracy and social isolation can make it tough for them to set down roots in Canadian soil.

Hundreds of students packed a snow-covered field, grumbling and shivering under the 3am sky. They tugged at their pyjamas, huddling in groups and peering at the fire truck at the head of the field. Firemen, police officers and college residence staff whispered and gestured. 

Keziah Dourado looked over the crowd. “You have to tell them it was you,” her roommate said. 

Minutes earlier, Dourado and her two roommates had been standing in front of an emergency fire exit inside the residence building. They’d just returned from a local bar, but security wouldn’t let them in with the two guys they’d brought back. “Just do it,” one of her roommates said. So Dourado pressed her palm on the cold door and pushed. 

A shrieking sound had filled her ears. She fell back and watched as every resident emerged from their rooms and evacuated the building.  

An eighteen-year-old Indian international student who grew up in the United Arab Emirates, Dourado was in her first year at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. Ever since she’d arrived at her residence, Dourado hadn’t felt like herself. Her roommates pushed her to drink much, much more than she was used to, taunted her for not attending parties and made fun of her for being a virgin. And she let them. “I didn’t have an opinion or any confidence at the time,” she says. “I lost my identity completely. I didn’t know who I was.”

That kind of crisis is typical for young international students, according to Marcela Olavarria, an Ottawa-based therapist who works with immigrants and refugees. Without support from family, international students often attempt to broaden their social networks by adapting to the behaviour they see around them—in Dourado’s case, her roommates’.

On the field, in the shadow of the fire truck, Dourado shuffled to the front. Thinking she was being helpful, she confessed. She was summoned to court a few weeks later.

Dourado didn’t want to disappoint her mother back home in the UAE, so she didn’t tell her. She tried to navigate the courts with the help of a student lawyer from the neighbouring Western University. But when he called her a week after the trial with the verdict, she felt like she would faint right there in the library. She’d been sentenced to jail time for misuse of a fire alarm system.

Dourado couldn’t understand how opening a door could land her in a jail cell, but she knew what she had to do. Back in her residence room, she dialled the long-distance number to reach her mom. “I want to go home,” she said. 

Every year, a growing number of international students graduate from Canada’s postsecondary institutions—up from 30,000 in 2010 to 53,000 in 2014, according to Statistics Canada. They’re a welcome boon to the Canadian economy: Global Affairs Canada estimates that, in 2014 alone, international students contributed almost $11.4 billion to economic activities, supporting 122,700 jobs. 

While Statistics Canada doesn’t keep record of how many international students choose to stay in the country after their studies are completed, many hope to use the experience as a stepping-stone to becoming permanent residents and Canadian citizens. In a 2015 survey of international students by the Canadian Bureau for International Education, over 50 percent of respondents intended to apply for permanent residency status. Peter Showler, former chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, says that encouraging international students to stay—with their Canadian post-secondary degrees, and knowledge of their home cultures in a global economy—is in “the naked self-interest of Canada.”  

Yet in the literature review of a Texas A&M study on international students, researchers identified several barriers that make it difficult for these students to adjust; across multiple studies from Canada, the US and Australia, they found an overarching theme of isolation from classmates and staff. One 2012 study followed six students and found that they often pretended to understand exchanges they had with English speakers, for example. Even for international students who speak English fluently, conversational patterns vary from culture to culture, making it difficult to connect. 

“It can be as simple as being greeted by a Canadian who says ‘hi, how are you?’ as they walk past and have no actual interest in how the person is,” explains Michelle Suderman, the director of international student development at the University of British Columbia. “That might seem quite cold and quite shocking to a person who is used to stopping and having a conversation in response to such an inquiry.”

For the students in the 2012 study, these misunderstandings led instructors to have negative perceptions of them. Some instructors assumed the students weren’t putting in enough effort to prepare for the class. In another study from 2004, which documented the experiences of female students from African countries in the sciences, professors criticized students’ accents, encouraged them to take remedial classes, and regularly doubted their ability to complete course assignments. This type of treatment from instructors led students to feel like they didn’t have the support they needed at school. 

Even as campuses have ramped up international student centres to catch up with the influx of foreign students, barriers remain to accessing their services. Some students focussed on work, life and education, remain unaware that support services exist; for others, it can be uncomfortable and culturally unfamiliar to seek emotional support outside of immediate family and friends. 

“Help-seeking behaviour is complex and multi-layered,” Suderman says. In some parts of the world, she continues, the expectation is that the school should be aware of the challenges a person is facing, and, in turn, reach out to them directly. Gretchen Dubois-Phillips, the manager of visiting student programs at the University of Alberta, compares the experience of her students to her own when she was in Japan, where it was customary for families to welcome her into their homes and introduce her to parts of the culture. While Dubois-Phillips has mostly received positive feedback about the services that the University of Alberta provides, she points out that international students can go unnoticed on Canada’s relatively multicultural university campuses.

On the other end of the spectrum, Suderman notes that some students come from cultures where self-sufficiency is valued more highly than it is in Canada. “There would be a sense that, well, if there’s a problem, it’s actually yours to solve. And if you can’t solve it, then it’s not my problem,” she says. These students come to believe their struggles are their own fault, and are reluctant to seek out help. In the university environment, that attitude can severely influence a student’s chances of academic and social success.   

At the University of British Columbia, according to Suderman, health care and immigration documents cause the most confusion. Health care, she explains, is much more expensive in Canada than many students are familiar with at home, and our partially socialized system curbs that cost. “The concept that it would be a high cost to see the dentist or receive health care, and then that someone else would be willing to pay for itthose are equally strange ideas for our international students,” she says. A further issue in British Columbia is that the province doesn’t know when students have arrived; students need to proactively register themselves for health insurance. If a student fails to register—because they didn’t know they needed to—the cumulative cost can be catastrophic. Suderman says she’s seen bills of up to a quarter million dollars accrue over one simple injury or illness.  

Some students face a different kind of unwanted surprise: if they don’t correctly maintain their confusing immigration documents, they might be forced to head home in the middle of a school semester.  

Meanwhile, Suderman and Dubois- Phillips agree that the stereotype that all international students are wealthy, and can therefore buy themselves out of even the stickiest of problems, is simply not true. For some, a significant amount of their stress comes from knowing that their families have pooled all their finances for the student to study abroad—the pressure to fulfill their family’s hopes and expectations, to live up to their sacrifices, can be overwhelming.

Marlen Iskander, an Egyptian international student at the University of Toronto, frowns at her computer and scrolls through yet another page of the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada website. She’s hoping to apply to be a permanent resident, but she can’t figure out how. In fact, she can’t even figure out if she qualifies. She clicks to open a ninth tab. This is taking too long, she thinks. I need to study

Weeks later, Iskander attends a workshop held on campus for students who need help with their permanent residency paperwork. She’s not surprised that the room is packed, or that students are asking what seem like simple, rudimentary questions. 

Iskander tried to get help with her application from an immigration advisor, but he told her that he wasn’t legally allowed to help her with her application. That information, it turns out, can only be disseminated by a certified immigration professional, someone who is licensed by the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council.

“Very few universities in Canada see permanent residence application support as within their scope,” Suderman says. That’s why universities often only bring in these professionals for occasional workshops instead of keeping them on staff. “But there is huge pressure from students, huge interest in application support.” 

That pressure is a testament to how overwhelming the process can be. “The difficult part about it is partially the intimidation of having to do it alone,” Iskander says. “And it’s very much the fear of making a mistake.” The information is all there on the website, she adds, but it’s near-incomprehensible for someone who is unfamiliar with Canada’s legal and government terminology, as most international students will be. 

Dourado had permanent residency status from a previous stay in Canada with her mother, but almost lost it due to the amount of time they’d spent outside the country; she was allowed to appeal, a process she found confounding to undertake on her own. At her hearing, the judge asked, “Where is your lawyer? Are you sure you can answer these questions alone?” No one had told Dourado that she would need representation. 

If students manage to navigate the labyrinth of permanent residency application successfully, they come out on the other end facing the same dismal job market and lack of affordable housing as the rest of their generation—all while trying to acclimatize to a new culture, often with no family connections or social support. 

Tim Aubry, a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa whose research focuses on the intersection of immigration, housing and mental health, says a lack of fall-back support, like the kind that young single immigrants face, is a risk factor for precarious housing and homelessness. Aubry points out that it’s become fairly common for adolescent and young Canadians up to their thirties to move back and forth between living on their own and living with their parents—something that isn’t an option for young Canadians from unstable homes, or single immigrants. “When you get a subset of the population that doesn’t have that,” Aubry says, “they’ve got nothing to go back to.”

After Dourado confessed on the phone, her mother hired a new, more experienced lawyer who got the criminal charges dropped in exchange for a fine and a donation to charity, and she finally let Dourado come home. But in 2010, less than two years later—Dourado had been hanging around the house, not working—her mother pushed her to try again.

Dourado packed another bag and flew to Canada to start a new life for a second time, studying early child care at Seneca College in Toronto. By 2012, she was sick of dorm life and a friend offered her a room in her house in Scarborough. The woman, who was in her early thirties at the time, helped Dourado move off campus.  

“It was just me and her,” Dourado says, remembering the small three-bedroom house where the two women shared a kitchen and a washroom. Soon, the woman was chatting with Dourado’s mother on the phone. If Dourado didn’t have money for groceries, her friend would cook. “She made me feel like I had a home,” Dourado says. It was the first time she had experienced that kind of safety and security in Canada.  

Other single immigrants and international students have also found that pseudo-parental figures can make a huge difference. In 2011, Lu Liu, then a Chinese graduate student at the University of Alberta, described a similar experience in an article for TESL Canada Journal. Liu chose to live with a Canadian family rather than in a student residence, and describes her relationship with her landlady as being more than a business arrangement: “In my heart, I see her as my Canadian mom who cares about me and gives me emotional support whenever I need it.” 

Throughout the essay, Liu recounts immense isolation due to language barriers, culture shock and severe homesickness. Her landlady stands out as a saviour for doing simple things like taking Liu to local events, inviting her to parties and baking cookies with her. “Living with her makes me feel at home,” she wrote. 

Olavarria, the therapist that works with immigrants, echoes Liu’s sentiment, referring to social support as the difference between “housing” and a “home.” That support can be on an institutional level—Iskander and Dourado both wish that international student services had been more visible when they were students, and that staff had made more of an effort to reach out to students and recognize their practical and emotional needs—or just one person, as Liu and Dourado experienced. Iskander, who’s now a residence don herself, is glad to have the opportunity to be that person for other, younger international students—if she lacked support herself, she’s determined to provide it for others.