These were some of the insights shared by international students studying at English language, pathway and postsecondary courses in Ottawa, at a recent roundtable hosted by The PIE News and education provider CultureWorks.
“I thought Canada was just a white piece of land covered in snow”
Jamal Yayha from Yemen recounted his surprise at the competitive edge Canada has over other destinations – especially the US. When it was time to apply for university, he wanted to study overseas but he had no interest in studying in Canada, Yayha told delegates.
While US culture is ubiquitous, he had no reference points to know what Canada is like. “I thought it was just a white piece of land covered in snow,” he explained. “Movies, celebrities, they’re all from the States.”
His interest in Canada was so low that he even considered going to Denmark instead.
But in the end, it was Canada’s cheaper tuition fees and simpler visa process compared with the US that convinced Yahya to apply there.
Happily, he related that “even a month after I came to Canada, I loved it,” and would enthusiastically recommend it to others.
Ana Isabel Reyes Flores from Mexico agreed that anyone who studies in Canada will find themselves recommending it. “You will fall in love with Canada,” she said.
Students related that they found Canada to be safe, friendly and welcoming, and that its citizens lived up to their national stereotype of being very polite.
In many of the discussions that took place during the roundtable, students said that word of mouth recommendations as well as familial connections influenced their choice to study in the country.
Several students said they already had family living in Ontario or that a brother or sister had studied in the country.
Students also relied on peer-to-peer recommendations they found online. Both Shirley Shuangxi and Erwin Munguía, University of Ottawa students from China and Mexico, said blogs and online forums help inform their decision, as well as rankings.
The student participants with Clare Gossage, The PIE, and Tina Bax and Trevor VanPeppen, CultureWorks
But despite these recommendations and high levels of satisfaction among the group, students did say they had experienced some drawbacks.
Communication was one area in particular where most institutions could improve, students said.
While some were satisfied with the pre-departure information that was provided, one student said lengthy delays in response to her emails had made her anxious.
Some Chinese students, meanwhile, described a unique difficulty created by the country’s internet firewall.
Shuangxi said she would have appreciated a greater volume of information sent directly to her from her institution, which she wasn’t able to search for online as she couldn’t access the university’s website.
The restrictions on web searches within China, she explained, were the reason she used an education agent for the application process – in fact, she couldn’t even access the Immigration Canada website.
“You will fall in love with Canada”
Yian Wan, also at the University of Ottawa, said living with website restrictions had made it difficult for her even after her arrival, as she was unfamiliar with some of the tools Canadian students use to carry out academic research.
Schools should introduce Chinese students to Western search engines and social networks, she suggested, to help them both with their studies and to integrate effectively.
As well as orientation materials and study-related information, a number of students also felt they would have benefited from more briefing on Canadian culture.
This could be provided pre-departure, to put them more at ease when going into an unfamiliar environment, one student suggested.
Some of the things that had taken students by surprise were the realisation that it’s seen as rude in Canada not to hold doors open for other people and that Canada is a relatively cashless society, so fees or utilities must be paid electronically.
Having an older ‘student buddy’ could help students feel settled and integrate into the student body, participants recommended.
Nevertheless, Reyes Flores said that after initially feeling apprehensive about living in Ottawa, Carleton University’s student societies “made me feel better”, especially the international student society, and helped her to discover the city.
And a student at CultureWorks praised the provider’s organised trips to places like the cinema and the ballet and said they had helped her to “break out of the triangle” many students find themselves in: travelling only between home, their university and the grocery store.
But institutions could benefit their students even more by providing greater and more visible support with the mechanics of living in a different country, students counselled.
They would like more help finding a part-time job, and one student said she had found it difficult to negotiate the paperwork needed for a tax return, and after not finding on-campus support, was forced to seek out a third-party service provider.
“You will fall in love with Canada,” said Ana Isabel Reyes Flores from Mexico.