Going beyond promoting counselling services to create a culture of care: Reflections from the CICMH Annual International Student Summit

I had the opportunity to attend the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health (CICMH) conference on improving international students’ experience in the Canadian post-secondary space. This was an incredibly enriching opportunity that sparked many reflections on my own experience, both when I first came to Canada as a new international student, and my experience now as a student leader. 


A critical theme from the CICMH conference was the need for institutions to understand and cater to the specific needs of international students. International students are NOT one homogenous group, AND there is also no singular group of students for every country. Everyone is different, and to support all students, it is crucial to listen to students’ lived experiences and try to make the system a little more inclusive every time a student shares their experiences. 


Reflecting on my experience as a 14-year-old living across the world from my parents, I didn't know if my worries were significant enough to visit a counsellor. Back then, as a Vietnamese student studying abroad on financial aid at a boarding school, I found it difficult to connect with others as we did not share many similarities. For over a year and a half, I struggled, and I didn’t know how to seek help. Seeking counselling felt daunting, and I doubted that a counsellor could help me adapt to my new environment when they hadn’t been through the same experience. 


My turning point came during the pandemic when a teacher at my boarding school took a genuine interest in my life. Her willingness to support me and encourage new hobbies helped me gain confidence and open up to new friendships and experiences. This personal connection made a significant difference, highlighting that support for international students should go beyond formal counselling services.


After this experience, I started paying attention to how others around me were doing, and I made it my daily goal to make someone’s day a little brighter. At Huron University, I have taken this approach in every student leadership role that I have held, notably in my role as a Wellness Peer Educator. 


As a Wellness Peer Educator, I worked in a team of three to organize events, create presentations to share tips on improving student well-being and offer peer support services for students who reached out. While offering these resources is useful for building mental health literacy on campus, I believe that making each of my interactions on campus a meaningful one was the most impactful action. I tried to be inclusive in conversations and always attempted to understand how people around me were feeling and how I could make them feel better.


In addition, I am part of the International Student Officer (ISO) team, where we focus on helping new international students settle into their new life in Canada, starting from the moment they land at the airport with orientation activities. I'm always surprised by how often I hear stories that are similar to mine, about them struggling to foster genuine connections, no matter how hard they try. In those moments, I see myself in them, I understand that there is no magic potion to fix the problem, and all I can do is to make them feel understood. Together we brainstormed ways they could foster genuine connections by both opening to new experiences and understanding the things that matter to them. Sometimes, that is all they need. Sometimes, what they need is more time to process their emotions and grow, and being able to witness the process is one of the most rewarding parts of my role.


My personal experience directly relates to the 1st point in CICMH’s list of recommendations for supporting international students, which emphasizes the importance of fostering a campus-wide sense of responsibility. This recommendation highlights the need to train staff as well as student leaders and ensure inclusivity and care are prioritized by all members of the campus community. My experience illustrates how impactful personal connections and genuine care can be. Every one of us has the power to make a huge difference in the lives of others. Only if we choose to care.