International students take centre stage at Sheridan summit
In a pathbreaking initiative, international students took centre stage at a summit organized by Sheridan College and the City of Brampton, and shared their stories to create a deeper understanding of their lived experiences in Canada.
At the two-day Improving the International Students Experience Summit on July 25–26, a panel of international students recounted the stories of profound hope that brought them to Canada, and their incredible resilience as they found their feet in a new country. They recalled the distant homes they had left in search of education – the rural villages and cities of India, war-ravaged Ukraine, Hong Kong in the Far East, or the sun-soaked Trinidad and Tobago. They talked about their families that waited, and often needed, for them to succeed, and the gaps in services they encountered in Canada, which once addressed, could lighten the load they carried on their young shoulders.
Their in-person audience of over 200 comprised members of the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, academic researchers, postsecondary administrators, and community agency leaders: many of them with the power, the responsibility, and the learning to help them along. The unified objective of the summit was to lay the foundation for a Brampton International Student Charter, envisaged as a road map for making Brampton a best practice leader in supporting international students by eliminating the systemic barriers in their journey toward success.
The College invited many of its student leaders to help facilitate discussions during the summit and record key takeaways from the conversations they heard. Sheridan alumna Nazrin Alaskarov (Illustration '22) took graphic notes, and panels from her incredible artwork were on display throughout the summit. All student notes will become part of the foundation of the proposed Brampton Charter.
Dreams fulfilled but support needed after graduation
“I think I speak on behalf of all the international students: before we come here, we see the Canadian dream. Personally, my hopes were to excel academically, to get a world-class education, and to do really good in studies, but it is also about meeting new people, to be in a different country, a different culture,” said Puneet Kaur Johal, who graduated from Sheridan’s Chemical Engineering Technology program in 2021.
A brilliant student with a deep interest in quantum physics, chemical physics, and astrophysics, Johal came to study at Sheridan from India and excelled at College. She was a valedictorian and a recipient of the CSCT Silver Medal Award from the Chemical Institute of Canada and the Wackerlin/Kogut Award of Excellence in Chemical Sciences from Sheridan’s Faculty of Applied Science & Technology.
Johal said while she had succeeded in fulfilling her dreams and aspirations by getting good grades and a job, the process could be stressful. Recalling some of the challenges she faced as an international student, she said: “I came here after grade 12 as most international students do, and that is the time when you're really young. You are miles and miles away from your family, who you spent your entire life with, and everything is new. You want to do good; you want to pay your own bills; you want to do a part-time job. You want to manage it all, and you also want to excel,” she said.
In addition to homesickness, international students face two other key challenges: they need to find a job to sustain themselves when they first arrive in Canada; and upon graduation, they need a job that’d qualify them for permanent residency, Johal said.
“I came here after grade 12 as most international students do, and that is the time when you're really young. You are miles and miles away from your family, who you spent your entire life with, and everything is new.”– Puneet Kaur Johal, Chemical Engineering Technology program ‘21. Sheridan College
Johal’s first job in Canada was at a pizza store, which she left after a couple of days because she didn’t feel respected. With the help of her professors at Sheridan, she began working at a tutoring centre, and that opened up the door to similar opportunities for her. She has since been teaching math and science at private academies, and is currently working as a research assistant at Sheridan.
Johal said there is a gap in services for international students after graduation. They lose facilities such as mental health counselling and immigration supports, which are available to them as students but get discontinued once they leave college. As international students are not permanent residents of Canada, they don’t get these facilities from the government either. “I have to find a lawyer on my own. I don't know how to navigate the immigration process, or which job to get,” she said.
War in Ukraine adds to financial challenges
Andrii Ligun, a second-year student in the Chemical Engineering Technology program at Sheridan, told the summit about the financial hardships being faced by Ukrainian and eastern European students due to the ongoing war in the region. Ligun came to Canada from Ukraine for a good education and hands-on experience, hoping to gain skills he can apply to improve his country as well as Canada. The war back home has added to the challenges he faces as an international student: both his parents lost their jobs due to the ongoing conflict and money is an issue. “For a lot of Ukrainian and eastern European students right now, the biggest problem is finances. Because of the war, it has become harder to make transfers (of funds) between Ukraine and Canada,” he said.
While some colleges are giving grants and scholarships to Ukrainian and eastern European students, it is just not enough, Ligun said. They can’t go back home because of the war, and they may not have enough money to afford housing as a student. “There are no services which offer affordable housing for students. You have to be a refugee immigrant for that, but not everyone wants to be a refugee because it is a hard process,” he said.
“For a lot of Ukrainian and eastern European students right now, the biggest problem is the finances. Because of the war, it has become harder to make transfers (of funds) between Ukraine and Canada.”– Andrii Ligun, Chemical Engineering Technology program, Sheridan College
Ligun aspires to be a chemical engineer and is focused on reaching for his goals despite some of the challenges he faces as an international student. He is a recipient of the Sheridan Chemical Engineering: Technology Environmental Award of Excellence, and is a peer mentor.
“It was also my hope to really see how the western society functions, why is it so different from developing countries, and to get a grasp of the technological advances that are going on in the world right now. Canada is at the centre of this advancement. Coming here was just the perfect opportunity for me to keep up with the ever-changing world,” he said.
Sheridan’s entrance scholarship helps mitigate housing woes
Trinidad and Tobago’s Leia Ali had heard great things about life in Canada from her father, who had lived in the country for a few years. When it was time for her to choose a college, she applied to Sheridan’s Honours Bachelor of Business Administration (Finance) program. In the few months she’s been in Canada, Ali has already made her mark as the club coordinator for the Hazel McCallion Campus.
“Sheridan’s entrance scholarship and another scholarship sponsored by Scotiabank in the first semester helped me a lot financially as I practically got half of my tuition off,” she said. However, Ali had to spend that saved money on housing after her initial plans to stay with a relative fell through. “For two months, I lived out of a suitcase,” she said, advocating for affordable and safe housing for students.
“Sheridan’s entrance scholarship and another scholarship sponsored by Scotiabank in the first semester helped a lot financially as I practically got half of my tuition off.”– Leia Ali, Honours Bachelor of Business Administration (Finance) program, Sheridan College
Ali’s end goal is to eventually reside in Canada because of the opportunities it offers. “Canada has a lot of opportunities in terms of jobs, versus back home where they don’t see anything beyond (working in) medicine, or being an engineer or a lawyer. Here, I’m pursuing a degree in finance and I want to be successful in possibly going into the banking industry,” she said.
Restriction on working hours a hurdle
Like Ligun, Parina Khosla was just out of school when she arrived in Canada in 2018 from India.
“I was too naïve, too young. I had very small dreams – all I knew was that I'll have classes, I’ll be going to college, and that's all my life will be. I feel so lucky now when I remember my first year, when I didn't even know where my classrooms (were located). And now, I’m working on campus and I'm doing everything well, so it's a big achievement,” she said.
A fourth-year student at York University, Khosla said while plenty of resources are available for international students, the high cost of living, the need for safe and cost-effective housing, and the 20-hour limit on paid employment remain a problem. International students can’t apply for OSAP like their Canadian counterparts, and at the same time, federal restrictions on work permits mean these students can’t work more than 20 hours a week although their fees are considerably higher than that of domestic students. “My parents were already providing for my tuition and I wasn’t in a place where I could ask them for my expenses. I needed a job but I didn’t know where to start looking for one,” she said.
“I feel so lucky now when I remember my first year, when I didn't even know where my class was. And now, I’m working on campus and I'm doing everything well, so it's a big achievement.”– Parina Khosla, Bachelor of Psychology, York University
Despite the difficulties, Canada remains a welcoming country for international students, Khosla said. “There were people helping me throughout (my journey). I came here in 2018 and if I look back, I wasn't then what I'm now. Your journey improves as you keep living here and meet new people,” she said.
Students need to know more about pre-arrival supports
Aamir Amla, Student Relations Director at Brilliant Minds Group and a graduate of Humber College, said pre-arrival supports provided by colleges should be curated to match the needs of prospective students. The students often get overwhelmed by multiple information packages and events, and are left struggling to decide what best suits their requirements. Rajveersinh Vaghela, a first-year student in Sheridan’s Computer Systems Technician – Software Engineering program, agreed with Amla. He said at the same time, there were students who had little or no information about the supports offered by colleges in Canada. “Many of my friends wanted some of these supports but weren’t able to access them due to lack of awareness,” he said.
Vaghela arrived in Canada in 2021 from India’s leading economic and industrial hub, Ahmedabad, with a diploma in computer engineering from Gujarat Technical University. He is a peer mentor and served as a co-lead marshal at Sheridan’s Convocation in June 2022. While his overall experience in Canada has been good so far, he said he didn’t get a true picture of life as an international student before arriving here, either from the social media or his relatives and friends.
“I thought life would be much easier over here. Social media doesn’t show everything, and though my relatives and friends who are studying here provided me with a lot of knowledge, things were really different from what they explained. They didn’t want to demotivate me from coming to a new country,” he said.
Great career prospects despite challenges
Amy Leung is currently a first-year Sheridan student (Office Administration – Executive program) who came to Canada from Hong Kong. She is a recipient of Sheridan International Outstanding Achievement in a Certificate, Diploma or Post-Graduate Scholarship – Spring/Summer 2022, and is currently working as the campus service ambassador.
Leung said she chose Canada not only because of the high quality of education it offers, but also because it embraces different cultures and provides a welcoming environment for newcomers.
“I made a happy choice and the right choice because in my college, the professors are very supportive. I'm confident and optimistic that after graduation, I will have a really good career prospect,” she said.
Sheridan summit a step in the right direction
In addition to the panelists, many international students who attended the summit took to the floor to put forward their concerns and suggestions at the conference. They also expressed the confidence the summit would go a long way in addressing the challenges faced by them.
Abhishek Hastir, who came to Canada from India and graduated from Sheridan’s Electromechanical Engineering Technician program in 2020, said the summit was a “one-of-a-kind” initiative and a step in the right direction, with the right intent.
“To fix the challenges in the international student space, we need all the stakeholders to sit in one place, create awareness about these challenges, address them, and then find solutions. This summit was exactly about that,” he said.
Hastir has been using his experience as an international student to offer guidance and support to international students through his own YouTube channel, Instagram and TikTok, which have become hugely popular social media resources for international students and graduates. He said Sheridan has long been trying to address the problems faced by international students.
“The solution comes by itself if the intent is there. Sheridan has shown that intent over the years and hopefully, this summit created the same intent among all stakeholders to solve the challenges of international students.”– Abhishek Hastir, Electromechanical Engineering Technician program ‘20
“All that a problem needs to be solved is intent to be solved; not the solution. The solution comes by itself if the intent is there. Sheridan has shown that intent over the years and hopefully, this summit creates the same intent among all stakeholders to solve the challenges of international students,” he said.
Banner photo: Sheridan President and Vice Chancellor Dr. Janet Morrison with international students at a summit to initiate positive change in international student experience through collaboration among stakeholders, organized by Sheridan College and the City of Brampton, at Davis Campus on July 25–26, 2022.
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