11/28/2013 03:21 EST | Updated 01/28/2014 05:59 EST

Dr. Gunjan Sondhi Reflects On The Canadian Experience Of International Students

Gunjan Sondhi recently completed her PHD in Migration Studies from the Sussex Center for Migration Research at the University of Sussex, UK. She is currently a resident affiliate at CERIS, York University, Canada. I caught up with her as she was about to present her thesis at a conference at York University.

Gunjan Sondhi recently completed her PHD in Migration Studies from the Sussex Center for Migration Research at the University of Sussex, UK. She is currently a resident affiliate at CERIS, York University, Canada, and an Associate Researcher at the University of Sussex. Her research focused on highly skilled migration/mobility, gender, class and education especially in Canada.

I caught up with her as she was about to present her thesis at a conference at York University.

Your thesis explored "the dialectical relationship between gender and international student mobility (ISM)". Please explain.

The doctoral thesis builds upon a large body of work that shows how gender relations (for men, women and transgendered individuals) impacts people's decision and experiences of moving, as well the experiences of settling into a new environment. It also examines the other side of the coin (so to speak) - that by becoming a migrant (international or internal) and in many cases settling in a new society, this process shapes the gender relations of the migrants themselves. Hence, I wanted to apply these ideas of migration and gender to a particular group of migrants - international students.

International students, thus far, have been examined and thought largely within the context of education and educational institutions. Their experiences of 'living abroad' are always considered only as part of their studies, within the classroom, or within the frame of reference of the university/college campuses. Shifting the lens from education to migration expanded the focus on student experiences to outside of the classroom and the university or college. Consequently, the emphasis was on students living their life, settling into Toronto, making friends (both at university and outside), finding a partner and getting to know the existing Indian community in Toronto.

Why did you focus on gender differences?

By highlighting gender differences, I wanted to bring attention to two points. The first point is that while overall the annual international student flows have a balanced gender ratio, the numbers from India reproduce the gender disparity that exists within India. There is a clear bias towards men in the gender composition of the stream of international students from India to Canada (CIC 2010). Both Canadian and global statistics reveal that women constitute only 25% of the total international students from India, as compared to flows from China of which the gender ratio is balanced.

The second point I wanted to highlight was the nature of shared experiences of international students to experiences of other migrants - thus continuing to establish the necessity of thinking of international students as not only students, or revenue streams; but also a 'bespoke' migrant stream which Canadian governments - federal and provincial - hope will produce the 'ideal' future Canadian citizen. This issue of international students as future Canadian citizen has thus far been largely invisible.

You presented your findings to a diverse crowd at York University recently and a lively discussion was followed. Share with me some of the highlights of the discussion.

The discussion was attended by members of community - including members from settlement services organization such as Rahila Mushtaq from COSTI, education advisor to the city of Toronto Jagdish Yadav, and Andrew Kapoor, a Senior Business Analyst from Sterling-Turner, a Toronto-based business which employs international students. The event was hosted by CERIS- Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement at York University. CERIS's new director, Adnan Turugen opened the event.

After the talk, during the Q&A period, a very rich and engaging discussion took place amongst the group. The members of different groups contributed and it was gratifying to hear that my research findings resonated with their experiences with international students. In particular, my research findings mirrored their experiences in three areas: housing, limited settlement support and those students who attended colleges were at a greater disadvantage than those attending universities.

What are some of the common challenges of Indian Students that you discovered in your study?

The following is an outline of the key findings of the research. The first section highlights the 'broad' and over-arching gendered findings. The second section reveals the specific findings presented during the talk.

On a very broad level the research revealed many interesting and unexpected findings. Before leaving some of the expectations were female students found it harder to receive support from parents to be able to study abroad. This expectation was based on the gender disparity in women's mobility and access to higher education. They had to negotiate with parents. In nearly 25% of the cases, women had to continually try to convince parents to 'let' them go study abroad. For some this took them over a year to gain their parents support. However, men as well had to undertake great deal of negotiations. Nearly 50% of the men I interviewed pointed out that their parents were not keen to support their sons desire to study abroad.

While abroad they adapted more easily to the new Toronto context - and in particular Toronto's relatively more liberal approach and support for the LGBTQ community and different gender norms and expectations from women. Though, women found it harder to fit in with the existing Indian and South Asian community in Toronto as they found the community to be very restrictive and found that Indian community in Toronto had archaic and 'dated' views of women's role in society.

Men on the other hand found it harder to adapt to the Toronto society, and expectation of how men are to act. In particular, men found it very hard to make friends in Toronto, especially those who were not of Indian background. Like women, men also found the Indian community in Toronto to have very conservative views on role of men and women and how they should interact with each other.

The 'dialectic' relation between gender and migration emerges in how men and women re-learn how to they are expected to behave in Toronto and amongst Torontonians.

Your presentation had a mission to "highlight the areas in which international students struggle" and the potential role of government agencies and higher education institutions to have an important role. Please explain?

I would use the word necessary rather than noble. I have been an international student - as a Canadian studying the UK. I have experienced many of the issues my respondents highlighted and understand the challenges and frustrations that international students have to face while they have to balance studies, work and a 'visa' status. Most discussions forget about the 'visa' aspect of the everyday life of international students.

This talk reported on selected results from 14 months of fieldwork (August 2010-September 2011) in Toronto, Canada and New Delhi, India, using mixed methods of data collection. Multi-sited ethnographic research was undertaken in order to capture the fluidity of gender and cultural norms across three time-space locations: before the students left India; while abroad in Toronto; and their return to New Delhi. In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with 65 respondents: 22 current students at universities and colleges in Toronto; 23 family members/parents and 20 returned students in New Delhi.

When was the fieldwork conducted?

The fieldwork in Toronto was conducted from August 2010 to May 2011; 22 students participated in in-depth interviews and several more students became part of the participant observation process due to my access to university spaces. Of the 22 students, 10 men and 12 women were interviewed; they were enrolled in programs at all levels at universities and colleges (Undergraduate and Post-Graduate degree and diploma courses).

The in-depth interviews and participant observations that took place in Toronto focused on the experiences of Indian students at two universities - York University and University of Toronto - and two colleges - Humber College and Centennial College. The respondents were recruited mainly through snowballing technique.

To complement the in-depth interviews and participant observations, an online survey was also mounted to facilitate: a) the collection of data on the socio-economic background and educational profiles of the students and their families, and b) the mapping of mobility patterns from various points of origin in India to Canada and other countries. The survey was hosted for 13 months, November 2010 to November 2011. The respondents were recruited through several networks but the primary method of recruitment/advertising was through email and Facebook.

A total of 157 respondents completed our survey, out of which 41 -roughly equal numbers of males and females - were studying at the time or had studied in the past in Canada. This gender breakdown is not representative of the total flow of student migrants to Canada from India; the overall gender average for students from India has been approximately 25% women and 75% men (CIC 2010).

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