When Clement Chan arrived in Canada in 1972 as an international student, the international student experience was vastly different to how it is today, especially in terms of student support. Leaving Hong Kong and growing accustomed to foreign cuisine, customs and culture while grappling with language skills was not easy for the 17 year old.
“But that made me grow stronger, more resilient,” Chan says.
“Nowadays, young people need a lot of support. I created the school to give them more support and find a better and easier way for them to be successful,” he continues.
Chan founded Columbia International College in 1979, aged 24, while he was working at McMaster University. The school was originally known as Columbia Secondary School of Canada and began as a six-room university preparatory and ESL school.
It is now Canada’s largest boarding school, home to students from over 70 countries, and a true example of what an international student can do for a country.
“As the school grew, we had a better methodology of supporting a larger number of students”
“At the beginning, it wasn’t like this. We didn’t have the same facilities and resources. However, the aim was the same – student success. Later on, as the school grew, we had a better methodology of supporting a larger number of students and a greater variety of students in terms of background and academics.
“How do you define success?” Chan ponders.
“You can define success as academic success – gaining admission to university or, you can take it a little bit further and define it as completing university successfully. Take it further, you can actually prepare [students] with all the skills, or some of the skills, that they need in their future career,” he continues.
Colombia International College fits in to the latter category, according to Chan, who, almost 44 years into his role, is present on campus everyday.
“Every school has its uniqueness and at Columbia International College we start by inspiring [students] to get out of their comfort zone and achieve something that they have never achieved before through personal development activities.”
In fact, Chan calls this the institution’s “secret sauce” and claims that this is the reason that its graduates are highly regarded among Canada’s top universities. Formally, the methodology is known as the ‘Total Care Education System’ – designed to nurture international students in areas essential to their growth and achievements.
“In some situations, the students actually say ‘I can achieve success in my club activities, in my sport activities and now, I want to do better in my studies’. They realise it themselves. They realise they can do other things and think ‘maybe I could apply the same principles to my studies’.”
Having such a diverse student body is not without its own challenges, Chan agrees.
However, he feels inspired daily by his student’s reactions to recent global events, which have been the catalyst for difficult, but necessary conversations.
“At Columbia International College we start by inspiring [students] to get out of their comfort zone”
When the war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, the staff immediately convened a meeting for students in the residence.
“We didn’t specify if the meeting was for Russian students, Ukrainian students, or otherwise. We said it was for whichever students were interested in coming, and there were around 60 who came.”
Among those who attended were Russian and Ukrainian students, who spoke openly and with compassion for one another and the ongoing events in their home countries – with some Russian students asking what more they can do to help.
“Our theme is moving forward in times of challenges,” Chan concludes.