Community and connection for international students studying in Canada
What do international students experience in the place we call home?
By: Amy Fournier
International student enrollments in Canada have more than tripled over the past 10 years, according to Statistics Canada. Young people from all over the world are drawn to Canada’s warm and welcoming culture as well as diverse population, making it an appealing destination for students looking to attend university abroad.
Travelling internationally to study is an exciting and life-changing experience, but it can also garner feelings of isolation and anxiety. Ira Famarin and Harkrishan (Harry) Singh Punn are two students studying at Canadian universities who are from Singapore and Oman, respectively. They say that building a community in Canada while virtually keeping in touch with family and friends from home has helped them make the most of their experience living abroad.
Face to face communication (over FaceTime)
Picture this: you’re sitting at your computer desk on a Zoom call, celebrating graduation with your family who is 14,986 kilometres away. Celebrating holidays and personal achievements with loved ones over video calls is commonplace for Famarin, a recent graduate from York University’s culture and expression program.
“I was supposed to go back home after my June 2020 graduation,” Famarin said. ”But unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I have to delay.”
Many students have been stranded abroad due to the COVID-19 outbreak. International students are particularly vulnerable to isolation, a feeling that was familiar long before the rise of the pandemic. Holidays can be an especially lonely time for international students as many do not have the same luxury as domestic students do to easily travel home.
“Keeping in touch with friends and family back home in Singapore with a 12-hour time difference between us is difficult,” Famarin says.
Punn, a fourth-year environmental engineering student at the University of Guelph, relies on technology to help ease feelings of loneliness and isolation that pass every now and then.
“I remember when video calls were just starting to be a thing, and the experience was so buggy. Now it is smooth as butter,” he says. “I have spent hours talking to my family, even while doing mundane things like cleaning or laundry.”
Despite being physically distant from friends and family, studying abroad has allowed Famarin to exercise her creativity when it comes to chatting via social media.
“I got really into playing this card game that’s popular on Instagram called ‘We’re Not Really Strangers,’” she says. “It’s a fun way to get to know your friends on an even deeper level.”
Even though technology can help bridge the gap between international students and their homes, there are some things that cannot be replaced virtually.
“The thing I miss most — besides my friends and family — are the night markets,” Famarin says. “In Singapore, we have these night markets, essentially cheap street food, that start in the early evening and go until late. Whereas people here bond by going out for drinks, we bond through barbecue. I miss that a lot.”
With a little help from my friends
Finding ways to connect to friends and family who are far away is important, but making new friends and connections in school can help speed up the transition process. Many universities offer international student clubs, which are great spaces to connect with other students who may also be feeling homesick and lonely in a new country.
“Prior to the start of my first semester, I joined an international student event that included students from many countries, including my own,” Punn says. “My first-year friend circle was quite diverse, and learning about Canada and Guelph together really helped me avoid cultural shock.
“I would wholeheartedly advocate that you step out of your comfort zone by having a diverse friend circle. You will learn so much about new cultures and countries through other international students.”
What comfort zone?
Many big cities in Canada, such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, have diasporas within them that can provide a sense of familiarity to international students.
“Being Sikh, I haven’t felt disconnected at all from my culture,” Punn says. “Events and traditions are celebrated in Sikh communities and attending is always an option, if one can find the time away from studies.”
Famarin’s experiences have given her a different perspective. She urges international students studying in Canada to get out of their comfort zone and meet different people.
“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there,” she says. “It’s so easy to stick to the community you know already. Open yourself up to new possibilities and cultures.”
There is a lot to take in when it comes to deciding whether or not to study abroad. Punn advises to “prepare yourself mentally for the distance you will put between yourself and your home,” and he says to reach out to the school’s alumni and try to get their perspective on what it’s like to study there. He says it’s most important for international students who do come to Canada, to appreciate the opportunity and time they have.
“Mostly, don’t take the experience for granted,” Punn says. “Explore the city, country, food, customs, and traditions. Participate in activities and organizations. And of course, study hard!”