This week, Janine Knight-Grofe, Research Manager, and Melissa Nisbett Manager, Communications at the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) write about the necessity of integrating international students and current initiatives in Canada.

Outside Looking In: Canadian Institutions Aim to Help International Students Make Canadian Friends

Pierre* travelled half way around the world from Cameroon to study business in Canada. He had few cross-cultural experiences before moving here and was looking forward to immersing himself in Canadian culture. 

But making Canadian friends didn’t come easily. Despite volunteering in a business club on campus with other Canadian students, Pierre’s circle of friends is mainly other Cameroonians.

His experience is, regrettably, not uncommon. A 2014 survey of 3,000 international students conducted by the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) found that 56 per cent of students do not count Canadians among their friends in Canada.

It’s an unfortunate statistic that doesn’t mesh with Canada’s recent International Education Strategy (IES), which plans on doubling the number of international students to over 450,000 in eight years, nor with the intentions of Canadian educational institutions that seek to help their students from abroad to connect with their Canadian peers and become part of their campus or school community.

The survey, as well as follow-up interviews, revealed that culture and language seem to form the biggest barriers to integration on the part of international students themselves. Some say they are not confident enough in their French or English language skills to start conversations and some – 30 per cent to be precise – say they just prefer to mix with their own culture. This cultural bias seems to play out in the data – students from the United States were the most likely to have Canadian friends, followed by students from Western Europe. Students from the Middle East and North Africa were the least likely to have Canadian friends.

Here’s a telling example from Pakistani student, Khaleel*: “I realised that the way we express ourselves at home does not convey the same here, the same intensity. One of the difficulties might be saying what you mean and what others interpret it as. It’s a communication issue and I don’t think we can do much about it. It’s a reality of life that we perhaps have to live with. And as an international student, I need to be aware of such differences.”

Institutional structures also play a role: the sheer number and high proportion of international students in certain programs of study makes it difficult to encounter Canadians. Palama* from Sri Lanka, studying a master’s degree in maths, says: “In my department, we have I think 60 or 70 graduate students. Out of them, only three people are Canadians. In that aspect, it is very difficult to get to know Canadians...It should be balanced.”

Add to this the fact that at her institution intercultural events are perceived by students as being organised for, and promoted to, international students only, Palama has little opportunity to encounter Canadians, much less make meaningful friendships.

Some international students also said Canadians weren’t interested in making new friends because they already had their own. “If they are by themselves, they will talk to you, but if they are with their friends they will act differently. It is a little bit hard to join a group of friends who have been together since high school,” says Clara* from Venezuela. This certainly does not tie in with Canada’s international branding to young people around the world as a welcoming and friendly study destination.

For all the benefits that social interaction among students of different cultures present, simply bringing them together in one classroom or campus is not enough. Ensuring that students mix with each other is part of a comprehensive, educationally relevant and ethical approach to internationalisation.

Recent statements on internationalisation emphasise the value of student integration as part of a principled approach. CBIE’s Code of Ethical Practice urges us all to, “Promote the interests of international students in the institutional community, and provide meaningful opportunities for interaction that promotes intercultural and mutual understanding between international students and other members of the institutional community and, to the extent possible, the surrounding community.” The International Student Mobility Charter states that: “When admitted to an education institution, international students are automatically also admitted to a country, a new community and its different culture. International students’ integration and interaction with the academic as well as the wider community needs to be actively facilitated to maximise the value for all stakeholders.”

Canadian institutions from coast to coast are taking this challenge seriously. Here are a few striking examples:

Just last fall, Wilfrid Laurier University launched a programme that paired domestic undergraduate students with students in the ‘Laurier English and Academic Foundation (LEAF)’ programme. Students spend 20 hours together over a semester, learning about each other’s cultures and language, with the intention that this programme will help better integrate LEAF students on campus and in the community, give domestic students a deep, cross-cultural experience, and establish long-term friendships. This innovative programme is unique because it is an academic credit requirement in community service learning; students involved, both domestic and international, receive intercultural communication training beforehand; interactions among students are planned; and the experience is discussed in class.

The University of British Columbia’s ‘Jump Start’ first-year transition programme, open to all international students, familiarises students with their campus, community and intended faculty two weeks prior to the start of the academic year. The programme, led by senior domestic and international student leaders, continues to support students and provide them with information, mentorship and friendship throughout the first year.

And at Memorial University of Newfoundland, international student volunteers deliver presentations on their home culture to kindergarten-to-Grade 12 children in the surrounding community. The ‘Culture-to-Community’ programme provides communities with little cultural diversity with the opportunity to develop a greater understanding of the wider world. The schools hosting presentations are encouraged to organise a Newfoundland cultural experience, to introduce international student presenters to an important aspect of Canadian culture.

OCENET – an initiative of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board – creates an opportunity for students and teachers from the Ottawa area to dialogue with and learn from international students and teachers.

Colleges and institutes are also making great strides in the area of international and domestic student connections.

In the CBIE study, almost all interviewees felt that they were especially close with fellow international students and reflected positively on their experiences at the international student office, particularly during their first days, where many of their first connections were formed.

Yet both institutions and students recognise that more programmes and occasions that actively promote interaction with other Canadian students and the wider community are needed to expose students to new ways of thinking and experiencing the world. Palama says: “People think different ways. You have a set of rules and a paradigm that you live with in your home country. When you go outside, you tend to think whether that is correct, whether the way you live is correct. It is interesting to get to know how other people live and think, not only Canadians, but people from other countries.”

And isn’t that the world we want to see?

*Names have been changed to protect students’ identities.

CBIE is Canada’s national organization dedicated to making Canada a global leader in international education. Its pan-Canadian membership comprises 150 colleges, institutes, universities, school boards and language schools which enrol over 1.2 million students from coast to coast. The next edition of CBIE’s study of international students will feature in the report A World of Learning: Canada’s Performance and Potential in International Education 2015, to be launched at the CBIE conference in November 2015.

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