One of the best benefits of teaching graduate students is being given the opportunity to meet so many extraordinary people from all over the world. Our department is like many at Canadian research universities; typically, 25-50% of our graduate students are from outside of Canada. This provides a rich and exciting learning environment for all the students in the department; for many, the exposure to such a broad diversity of cultures, perspectives, ideas and experiences is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It also offers challenges, opportunity, and interest to professors who never know quite what to expect from their new crop of students each year. It is a pleasure and a privilege to have an extended opportunity to meet, learn from, and collaborate with such a diversity of students.
I’m not going to take any space here talking about the difficulties we may face when working with international students. Perhaps I will in a future blog. The fact is, it’s a challenge for any student to write a graduate thesis; writing one in a second language and while acclimating to a new home, even one that offers as obvious pleasures as does Winnipeg, may be 10 times as difficult. These students are fierce, brave, and dedicated. They deserve for us to focus on the good, not the bad, and to talk about how we can ensure their success.
I think both profs and student peers can play a role in welcoming international students. As profs, we need to demonstrate with words and actions that we welcome the new perspectives and ideas that are introduced by new students. Of course, we need to spend the time with them necessary to guide them through the academic hoops they will face. But international students might benefit just as much from our suggestions about how to buy a bus pass, the better areas of the city to live, and which farmers markets are worth visiting. Students who are happy and comfortable in their surroundings are much more likely to be successful academically.
Local students can also play a vital role in making international visitors feel comfortable. It’s probably better if it’s students, rather than profs, who show their new colleagues where the best pubs are, or where the cheapest beer and pizza can be found. Local students also have the opportunity to be ambassadors for their city. At the University of Manitoba, our graduate students often organize activities with new students, such as skating on the longest natural skating rink in the world (take that, Ottawa), cross-country skiing, hiking, camping, visits to the Forks market, and birding expeditions. While the benefits to the international students are obvious, the local students benefit too, by expanding their social network, and encouraging them to learn more both about their own neighbourhoods and about other cultures. And what could be wrong with having another excuse for a party?
International graduate students bring incalculable benefits to our research programs, universities, and personal lives. We have a responsibility to make their transition to Canadian universities as pleasant as possible, to help ensure that the memories they bring away with them are of growth, learning, and lifetime friendships.