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A Continent Away: Challenges Faced by International Students

Starting university can often be daunting time for students, with each of us coming in with different experiences and bringing with us diverse strengths, weaknesses, and expectations. Despite our differences, however, we all share a common goal of advancing ourselves intellectually. For international students, this goal is often hindered when institutions fail to provide this cohort of students with the adequate supports and resources they need to succeed.

Coming into my first year at Queen’s University this past September, I was ignorant of the plethora of challenges that my fellow peers faced as international students. Last September, I found out that my roommate for the next eight months was going to be an international student from Shanghai, China. It was only in these last eight months that I became very aware of my privilege, and I began to indirectly understand the complexity of the challenges that international students faced.

Despite a set of common challenges that all first years face, it became evident that there were unique challenges that international students had to combat. This included things like, culture shock, language and communication barriers, and isolation. Although many domestic students struggle with the challenges of moving away from home, international students can feel a heightened sense of alienation. For many of these students, it is not only their first time in Canada, but it may also be their first time outside of their own home country - ever. While culture shock may be inevitable, there is a significant lack of supports offered by universities to help international students who are facing these challenges. Additionally, without proper supports set in place, international students can face communication barriers with facilitators, professors, and their fellow peers, which can also result in social isolation and limited interaction.

The language and communication barriers that international students often face also negatively translates into the classroom environment. I saw first hand the negative impact language barriers had on academic performance and participation in the classroom. Many of my roommate’s international peers came into university hoping to succeed in their post-secondary journey, only to find that their success was impeded by their inability to communicate effectively and openly with professors and domestic peers. Feeling and being isolated is another hurdle international students face. This can hinder the ability for these students to form critical connections within the post-secondary community. Starting university, transition that is already considered difficult for many, is compounded by these challenges for many international students without sufficient understanding and support from the community around them.

For many recent international grads, these challenges continue to negatively impact their lives as they enter the workforce and begin their careers. A study conducted by the University of Guelph revealed that, “the perception of discrimination by some prospective employers based on international student status in Canada leads to a feeling of being undervalued” (Guelph Study). Furthermore, this study indicates how important it was for students to have a real connection with their broader community in order to succeed within PSE and as they enter their careers. Studies such as this indicate post-secondary institutions need to offer effective programs and supports for international students throughout the duration of their entire undergraduate career so that they can succeed after graduation as well.   

With international post-secondary enrolment in our province being among the highest in the country, international students are a growing cohort of students who contribute to our province in many ways. In addition to paying tuition fees 5 times higher than domestic fees, it’s important not only to recognize the financial burdens these students face but also the social, academic, and cultural barriers they are challenged with in their post-secondary careers. It’s time for our institutions and the provincial government to address the needs of these students more effectively, and this requires having a conversation with international students and developing a response to the issues they face so that they can thrive in our province and universities.