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Making international students feel welcome

Three programs highlight ways of including international students and their families in the community

By PHILIP FINE | DEC 07 2009

Shahana Islam keenly remembers the loneliness she felt after arriving in St. John’s in 1981 from Bangladesh. While her husband was attending classes at the university, she would take trips to a downtown mall to see if there were any other “brown faces.” Now, 28 years later, she draws on those memories for a program that she spearheads at Memorial University of Newfoundland, providing resources and social activities to international students who have families with them.

The Memorial initiative is one of a number of innovative university programs that branch out from the international students centre in the pursuit of integrating foreign students into Canadian life. Three very different programs were described in sessions at the recent annual conference of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, held this year in Toronto. Besides Memorial’s, there was a University of Toronto series of language classes that proves that anything goes when you’re looking for lesson subjects, and a program at the University of Western Ontario that matches small groups of female students with volunteers who bring them into their homes each week.

Memorial’s Community Settlement Program for International Student Families is a five-year-old initiative, born from a simple playgroup for students whose families were longing for social activities. Ms. Islam, as the university’s international families coordinator, has expanded the group’s services with the help of a $27,000 yearly grant from Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Human Resources, Labour and Employment. The provincial department sees a direct correlation between international student families feeling at home during their time at the university and the likelihood that they will choose the province when they look for a place to permanently settle. (Text continues below)

The group meets weekly on Sunday afternoons. The funding has allowed the 39 families who are currently members to enjoy activities such as a boat tour. Children play together and make friends, while other resources range from simple information about nearby shopping and medical services to emergency kits and furniture donations from faculty.

The program’s reliance on government grants does worry some people. The University of Saskatchewan’s Derek Tannis runs a similar program but has recently seen his funding cut due to the restructuring of immigrant services; he hopes to soon get it back under another funding envelope.

As for Ms. Islam, she is making sure the rest of the university knows about the type of work she’s doing. If the government tap runs dry, she says, there will be goodwill and people to take care of each other.

At the University of Toronto, an English conversation program is operated out of the International Student Centre, staffed by volunteers who teach English as a second language using a myriad of themes. In one class, a volunteer who used to run a gallery brought in artist friends to talk about their work, while another series took students to the ravines and parks of Toronto, all the while trying to foster conversation. “We ask volunteers to tap into their own experience,” said communications coordinator Jelena Damjanovic. “No class is the same as any other.”

The Porch Light program at Western was created by Rachel Crowe and Rose Aquino of Western’s International and Exchange Student Centre, in collaboration with two members of the London community, Kem Murch and Heni Ritchie. The program grew from the experiences of several internaitonal students who realized later that they had graduated from Western without ever stepping into the home of a Canadian. This program matches hosts who are active in the community with a small group of female students and offers the students a weekly get-together in the women’s homes. It’s a place for conversation, for learning about Canadian culture and for meeting neighbours. In its third year, it has three groups, with seven hosts and 16 participants. Women students who have taken part said it gives them a second home and relieves the loneliness of the international student experience.

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