Welcome to Canada – but don’t expect to make friends

Nafsa conference hears of figures showing that overseas students’ interaction with locals is more limited than generally assumed

June 4, 2015
Olympic Games 2010, Vancouver, Canada
Source: Corbis
Outreach needed: overseas students say it can be hard to get to know the locals

In addition to producing revenue for universities and economic benefits for host nations, the growing cohort of international students is widely thought to be playing a key role in globalisation as they interact with home students on campus.

But statistics shared at the recent annual conference of Nafsa, the Association of International Educators, billed as the world’s largest gathering of international educators, suggest that this is happening far less than assumed.

Fifty-six per cent of international students in Canada said that they have no Canadian friends, according to Janine Knight-Grofe, research and scholarships manager for the Canadian Bureau for International Education. Statistics from elsewhere show that 40 per cent of international students in the US and 80 per cent in Australia wished they had more local friends, she added.

“We are missing out on one of the strategic advantages of international education, one that we as international educators frequently tout,” Ms Knight-Grofe told the conference, which was held in Boston from 24 to 29 May.

The conventional wisdom is that the presence of overseas students fosters “a mix of cultures and ideas and domestic students will as a result be more globalised”.

Instead, Ms Knight-Grofe said, one-third of international students in Canada said that it was hard to meet Canadian students, and half found it hard to meet Canadians off campus. Students from the Middle East and North Africa seemed particularly isolated; only 28 per cent had any Canadian friends. Moreover, focus groups revealed that international students in general prefer the company of other international students, Ms Knight-Grofe added.

She said the focus groups also found that international students cite poor English-language skills and a lack of confidence as impediments to integration. The problem is exacerbated by cultural differences and, in disciplines including several of the sciences, the relative lack of Canadian peers to interact with.

In Montreal, several universities have banded together with government agencies and businesses to create Accueil Plus, a programme that offers international students personal interaction from the moment they arrive at the airport, streamlining their processing through immigration, sending local students to meet them, giving them a city-wide museum pass and hosting a reception for them.

“We try not to keep international students in our individual institutions. There are so many of them in the core of Montreal,” said Pauline L’Écuyer, director of international student services at McGill University.

These initiatives are not merely altruistic. More than half of international students who come to Montreal remain there to work, at a time when the country is facing shortages in some skills.

Across Canada as a whole, international students spend C$8.4 billion (£4.42 billion) a year, said Virginia Macchiavello, executive director of international education at Centennial College of Applied Arts and Technology, a higher education institution in Toronto.

Nearly 6,000 of Centennial’s 19,000 students come from abroad, Ms Macchiavello said, so a forthright approach to keeping them happy from the outset is essential.

Initiatives begin before Centennial’s international students arrive. Home students are hired as ambassadors whose duties include contacting overseas peers on social media, and staff advisers call international students weekly for the first six weeks to see how they are settling in.

“If you can integrate students in the first semester, you will not hear from them for the rest of their time,” said Ms Macchiavello. “If you don’t, they will whine and complain and be in your office, and the success rate goes down.”

I was the happiest girl in the world, he wrote: an ounce of plagiarism prevention

Asked to write a paper on a “special birthday” from his past, one international student at Oregon State University followed the instructions exactly – except that the birthday he described was clearly not his.

It was a woman’s.

The plagiarism was so blatant that the student quickly found himself in front of the university’s “care and conduct coordinator” for international students.

Marigold Holmes, sponsored programmes manager in the Division of International Programs at Oregon State, told last week’s Nafsa conference: “International students have different contexts academically and culturally. They don’t really know what they’ve done wrong.”

Western universities want students to learn to solve problems, while international students are often more used to rote memorisation in teacher-centred classrooms, she observed.

But, Ms Holmes continued, “people focus on international students because they’re more readily caught than domestic students.

“It’s really important to stop stereotyping and stigmatising international students when it comes to academic misconduct. It’s not just their problem; it’s a problem for all students.”

Oregon State recently launched an anti-cheating initiative “for all students, not just international [ones]”, said Emiko Christopherson, an international student adviser. “It’s very, very important to send a unified message.”

The university has printed rules regarding academic misconduct in Chinese and Arabic along with English. It is also creating videos explaining what constitutes cheating, what might lead to it and who it hurts. One of the clips shows a panel of international students sharing their surprise at discovering what is and is not improper.

“Most of them aren’t maliciously trying to cheat. They just don’t understand they’re doing something wrong, and there’s this whole pressure component,” Ms Holmes observed.

She said there was no specific incident that prompted the university to take such steps. It has recognised that it is cheaper and faster to prevent cheating than to spend time responding to it, and to face the potential expulsion of revenue-producing students.

“We’ve definitely got buy-in from senior leadership,” she added.

Jon Marcus

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