Brave in a new world

Dylan Hewlett
Fatemah Al Helal. Dylan Hewlett
Farid Stanekzai. Supplied

Special Feature

Being an international student can be stressful, financially difficult and potentially alienating. So why do so many students study here?

They come from every conceivable part of the world, from Iran to China, Germany to Saudi Arabia.

They can be fresh out of high school or already have a degree or two under their belts.

They may know one or two people in Canada, but more often than not they arrive alone, to a foreign city, new culture, strange food and cold climate.

Their tuition costs more than twice what Canadians pay, and with adjustments to teaching styles and language barriers, they often have to work twice as hard to get their degrees.

They are international students, and hundreds of them come to the University of Winnipeg every year.

Fatemah Al Helal came to Canada after she won a scholarship for academic excellence through the Saudi Arabian government’s King Abdullah Scholarship Program. Through this program, the government purchased an English Language Program (ELP) for her in Winnipeg.

“I didn’t know where is Winnipeg,” Al Helal laughs. “I was looking at the map, trying to see where it’s located.”

Al Helal planned on finishing her master’s degree in food and nutrition at the University of Manitoba, but found she could not get in to the program. She is now in her first year of a sociology degree at the U of W.

After successfully completing the ELP, Al Helal enrolled in university classes. She soon realized how difficult taking university classes in a foreign language could be.

“I remember my first class at the University of Manitoba, I was sitting in the room and I don’t have any clue what the professor is saying. I was so upset,” says Al Helal.

Al Helal says her life has gone through some big changes in the three years she has been in Winnipeg; she has become accustomed to a much more independent lifestyle, and has made many Canadian friends.

“It was so hard at the beginning, when it comes to clothes, talking to people. I needed more time to not feel shy around guys. It was a whole new level of me,” she says.

Financial difficulties

Al Helal says she never could have come to the university without her scholarship. Now, her scholarship has run out, and she needs to find a job to support herself on top of the hours she spends in school.

“It’s crazy. For sure it’s worth it, but my life would be easier if it was cheaper,” says Al Helal.

A year’s tuition for arts or education costs $10,000 for international students. A bachelor of science is $11,500 per year. Living costs are estimated at $10,302 per year. Add student fees and the mandatory $420 international student health plan, and it can cost around $21,000 per year for an international student to study in Canada.

Ehsan Nemati, a third-year business student, is more accepting of the tuition fees.

“I complain at the beginning, but after a while, I figure out, nobody forced me to come here. I choose it, so now I have no complaints about it,” Nemati says.

Nemati, who is originally from Iran, is a full-time student, balancing classes and a part-time job. However, he says, financial worries are lessened by the fact that his father can send him money when he needs it.

Before Nemati came to Canada, he studied industrial engineering in Malaysia. He decided to earn his master’s in Canada. After spending eight months in the ELP, he found he couldn’t get into the master’s program as he had hoped, and chose business instead.

The challenges of “fitting in”

Nemati says it is easy to socialize with other international students in Canada. Coming from Malaysia, which he describes as a multicultural hub, interacting with people from other cultures was not new. However, Canadians were less accessible to him, he says.

“I do have good Canadian friends, but honestly, for me, it’s somehow easier to find a friend from other countries than a Canadian,” he says.

Zhi Yang Li, who came from China in 2008 and is now studying psychology, says Canadian students often don’t notice the shy newcomers in their classrooms.

“International students always stay international students here,” Li says. “They want to make Canadian friends, but they’re shy. They’re thinking, should I talk to them, or should they talk to me first.”

The food, language, socializing and teaching styles were difficult to adjust to, Li says.

“It takes double the work,” she says, comparing an international student’s challenges to that of a Canadian student.

Li hopes in the future international students can team up with other student groups to have multicultural events to encourage the groups to better socialize with one another.

Carey Roess, a full-time instructor for the ELP, says some newcomers fear they will lose their own cultural identities here. Graduates from the program often come back to help new students, and demonstrate that they can integrate into Canadian life without losing their culture.

According to Roess, many international students are unsure of how to ask questions or get the help they need.

“(They) are less likely to seek help, professional help especially, even going to the doctor. It’s not a system they’re used to living in,” Roess says.

According to Roess, the ELP moved from the Exchange District to the Rice Building two-and-a-half years ago. Since then, she has seen international students getting more involved in student groups, and feeling more like they are part of the university.

Julie Sakuto, co-ordinator of student life at the ELP, helps to make students’ transition to Canadian culture as smooth as possible.

“It can be stressful for them: fitting in, being embarrassed about how they’re communicating,” Sakuto says.

In order to help with the students’ social adjustments, there are organized activities every Friday. The students go to hockey games, learn to carve pumpkins and roast marshmallows - experiences Sakuto says are foreign to many of the students.

The ins and outs of international student recruitment

Jason Brennan, director of recruitment, says between 1,000 and 1,200 international students attend U of W each year. These numbers include exchange students, undergraduates and graduate students.

According to Brennan, the university strives for diversity. However, he says that currently, approximately 40 per cent of recruited students come from China.

Students are recruited in various ways. Until September, the university was employing all sorts of different representative agencies in many different countries, he says.

“The varying levels of quality amongst representatives and techniques employed by those companies made it very difficult to have a consistent message,” Brennan says.

Brennan says many of the representative companies also charged prospective students fees to provide basic information about the school.

Nemati can attest to this. While his recruitment officer in Malaysia offered services free of charge, he says a friend of his went to a recruitment centre that asked close to $1,000 for assistance in the application process.

Brennan says the university started using a Canada-based representative company called Higher Edge in September. The company runs Canadian University Application Centres in 15 different countries, including Chile to China.

Higher Edge represents six Canadian universities, and helps future students through the application process for free. Brennan says this makes it much easier for the U of W to get accurate information to students.

While international student tuition is much higher than Canadian tuition at U of W, it is lower than in other parts of Canada. A fact sheet put out by the Canadian Federation of Students in 2009 listed average international student tuition fees at $15,500.

Brennan says international students pay a higher tuition because the Canadian government does not subsidize fees for non-Canadian students.

“Basically, we’re asking international students to pay the full cost of their tuitions,” says Brennan.

Global citizens

Al Helal, who survived culture shock at the beginning of her journey as an international student, is now learning to navigate her new place as a global citizen.

Revisiting her homeland is complicated now, she says.

“It’s hard to accept the things I was accepting in the past. You learn something new, and at the end you need to go back to your old habits,” says Al Helal.

After two years in Canada, Al Helal chose to stop wearing her hijab. She says she made her decision after extensive research on the issue.

“This was a big change for me, but I am more comfortable now. Some women who wear the hijab really like it, it just depends on the person,” she says.

While Al Helal says she hasn’t been treated differently in Canada since she stopped wearing the hijab, it was difficult for many of her friends and family in Saudi Arabia to accept her choice.

For her, this is just part of her educational journey. When she graduates, she hopes to get a job as a professor, or become involved in a non-governmental organization.

“I would travel anywhere in the world just to help people and understand their needs,” says Al Helal.

“Travel is a part of education.”

Published in Volume 66, Number 13 of The Uniter (November 23, 2011)

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