02/11/2014 12:22 EST | Updated 04/13/2014 05:59 EDT

First Year Experience Critical for International Students

Success of International Education Strategy hinges on the first-year experience

As the federal government unfolds its International Education Strategy to tap the economic benefits of international education, the well-being of international students needs to stay front and centre.

If Canada is to double its number of international students by 2022, as the government proposes, we need to consider the human factors that will make that successful. The first year of college abroad is a litmus test for many students. If they have a positive experience in the first year, they will stay. If they have a negative one, they will leave. Their initial arrival, and experience in the first few months, will determine whether they make a long-term contribution to Canada's culture and economy or head back home to where education is familiar.

As a post-secondary educator of international students, I observe the issues faced by international students as they make their entry to a new culture and a new educational system. Many of these students are still in their teen years. Many have never traveled abroad before, and many more have never lived in another country.

It's an exciting experience for them. However, it is often quite overwhelming. When the students arrive they must begin new lives in an environment that is very different. Doing that can be very frightening for a young person. Simple tasks like going to a grocery store where the language is different, the products are unfamiliar, and they cannot find items they need for daily sustenance, can be challenging. Some of them arrive in January when the climate is harsher than anything they could have imagined.

Initially, international students need assistance with the most ordinary things: They suddenly need a winter coat that's warmer than anything they can buy at home. How does one find housing in the city with low vacancy rates? Where can they find food they are familiar with? How do they take public transit to school? How do they function in a language that they may have learned at school, but have never used for survival?

In 2012, the government of Canada indicated there were 265,000 international students in the country. They contributed $8 billion to the Canadian economy (up from $6.5 billion in 2010) and supported 86,000 full-time jobs in Canada. The students paid $445 million in taxes. Of the 265,000 international students nearly 8,000 became permanent residents. Most qualified through the Federal Skilled Worker Program.

While these figures are impressive, Australia, a country comparable in size to Canada, hosted nearly twice as many international students. They contributed $18 billion to the Australian economy in 2009 (Australia's peak year) and created 126,000 jobs.

If Canada wants to host these students successfully, and maintain our reputation as an attractive place to come to study, we need to assist students in the transition to their new environment. The transition for Canadian students from high school to university is challenging in many ways.

The gap for international students is even greater. Learning styles can be very different in Canada from their homes where the emphasis might have been on memorization, or passing tests where there is only one right answer. In Canada, higher education puts an emphasis on critical thinking, problem solving, and self-guided research. Students make this adaptation while also trying to adapt culturally and to using spoken and written language at a university level.

Schools and colleges need to ensure that there are resources for these students such as peer tutoring programs and orientation that enables students to understand essay writing, critical analysis, time management, note-taking and what Canadians mean by academic honesty.

If these academic challenges were not enough, many students face economic challenges during their time away from home. Some come to Canada with their families' hopes on their shoulders. A whole extended family may have pooled their finances for a student's overseas study opportunity. The pressure to negotiate all the challenges, and fulfill the family's hopes, can be overwhelming. Now they must cope with these pressures alone instead of with family and friends to support them.

Educational institutions interested in increasing their international student numbers cannot simply let these newcomers sink or swim. Experience shows that without assistance, an unconscionable number of international students will flounder in their early months and return home.

Educational institutions must make sure our students get an in-depth orientation not just to university facilities, but to networks that will support them in their integration. Buddy programs can pair students with other newcomer learners. Open-door policies from professors and other staff are critical. Educators must recognize that these students are capable, but have different needs from domestic students. Frequent social events and initiatives can help students have a well-rounded experience that involves more than just pressure and work. We do these things for Canadian students entering university for the first time. We must adapt transition programs for overseas learners.

Canadian citizens can also do a lot to help international students. Most new students are interested in connecting with Canadians. Pathway colleges encourage international students to volunteer their time to get to know Canadian communities, and to understand Canadian life more broadly. Many of our students have said they appreciate not only the many cultures visible in our cities, but also the inclusive way our society treats newcomers. Let's build on that tradition and look for ways to include newcomer students in Canadian activities.

One of our first students at the International College of Manitoba (ICM) was a 19-year-old girl from Zambia. The oldest of three, she had bravely left home to get an education in Canada. Her stay, however, got off to a rocky start when her luggage, including her laptop, clothes and personal items, got lost on the way to Winnipeg. ICM staff rallied to support her, getting in touch with the airline, helping her connect with her parents and staying in touch while she waited for her luggage to arrive. Her peers and the school's support programs kept her connected with others until she could get on her feet during her first months. In the years since, she has won scholarships, transferred into the University of Manitoba's School of Business, and graduated with her Bachelor of Commerce degree. She is now employed full-time and uses her experience to provide academic and social support to other students who are going through their transition phase.

Educators and Canadian citizens can help make this time for international students one that they will remember favorably for the rest of their lives. International students contribute rich diversity to Canadian university settings, and they will remain overseas allies long into the future. Let's welcome these students, and ease their transition, so that the international education experience is beneficial for all.

Susan Deane is the general manager for Navitas Canada and the college director and principal of the International College of Manitoba. One of the first in her family to get a post-secondary degree, she immigrated to Canada from India in 1984, and is passionate about encouraging young people to get their post-secondary education and contribute positively to society.

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