As colleges and universities move back to in-person instruction, lessons from online learning implemented during the pandemic have revealed special insights for supporting international students studying in Canada.
Over the last 10 years, internationalization of Canadian higher education has boomed. Both scholars and mainstream media have noted the ways universities and colleges increasingly rely on international student enrolment to supplement budget shortfalls and create new growth for the institution. But the arrival of this new student body has also highlighted unique challenges international students face once they arrive in our country, such as employment exploitation, culture shock, housing insecurity and food insecurity.
Uyoyo Dapo-Ajao is a Nigerian student completing her course of study in business communications at an Ontario college. I (Christin) first met Uyoyo during the 2021 spring term when she took two of my writing and communications courses for her program. I immediately recognized the precarious position Uyoyo inhabited. Over the last year, I have witnessed her overcome housing, food, and work obstacles while also seeking to complete her course of study.
I’ll let Uyoyo share a bit of her experience:
“I had the privilege of growing up in a small community in southern Nigeria among men and women who had gone to and who prioritized school. My mother retired as an elementary school principal, and my father retired as a high school principal, so going to school was not optional for me.
After completing my first degree in biochemistry, I began my career in the sales department of a pharmaceutical company. I advanced to sales manager and had the opportunity to travel to seven countries on business. I knew there was more to life as I grew in age, career, family, and mind so I was willing to pay the price to become a better version of myself and to position my family for greater prospects. After careful consideration and research, I decided to take a leap of faith and study in Canada, settle, and raise my children in a safe environment.
In June 2021, I arrived in Canada to begin my studies at a Canadian college. During this time, my school had transitioned to virtual learning to continue delivering classes during the pandemic. Although many international students believe that tuition should have been reduced because school did not take place in person, this did not happen, despite students’ requests. However, remote schooling provided a surprisingly smooth transition into a new country and way of life. This gave me the opportunity to observe, witness, and embrace Canadian culture, which is very respectful, diverse, and patient. The pandemic also enabled remote working. The combination of a remote job and remote school helped me to save money because it allowed me to find housing where rental costs are more affordable — away from campus and outside the city. In addition, online education and online work reduced costs of transportation to and from school and work.
Given the popularity of remote operations in response to the pandemic, colleges and universities should provide more options and opportunities for all students to participate in a more permanent hybrid class. They could also take the lead in advocating the government to allow international students to work more than the current 20 hours per week under our study permits. As a result, students would be better able to contribute to the workforce, which is in strong demand currently, and earn more money. This money is not only for ourselves – as international students, we have dependents back home. I frequently send money from my meagre earnings in Canada to my home country to help support the expenses of children, family members, and friends who I have helped financially in the past and who are truly in need.”
This spring, Uyoyo’s institution announced it was time to return to in-person learning, an understandable decision. However, I watched as the balance shifted for Uyoyo, and the delicately aligned struts that supported her tenuous existence here as a visa-holding student slid away. She must now commute to school using public transportation, which takes her about an hour both ways. This means she can no longer make her remote work shifts. She has sent her schedule to her employers and asked them to book shifts around her class and commute times, but that has not always been successful. This has in turn impacted her ability to meet her financial obligations and from there, the dominoes continue to fall.
Unfortunately, Uyoyo’s experience is the rule not the exception for international students seeking a pathway to citizenship via Canadian education. While these students represent a huge financial boon for the colleges and universities who enrol them, once they get here, they require a unique iteration of social support and academic assistance. Much like the impact of open enrolment in the 1960s on U.S. higher education, internationalization asks Canadian higher education to adjust systems and norms to better meet this new body of students arriving in our classrooms.
The adjustments made to education through the pandemic provide a surprising solution to key economic and academic difficulties international students experience. By adopting a hybrid or low-residency model for programs with large numbers of international students, colleges and universities would afford these students the opportunity to find reasonable housing outside of urban hotspots, to better balance work and school timetables, and to relinquish transportation costs. These simple accommodations could go a long way to redress the ethical imbalance placed on international students who arrive eager to learn in and contribute to their new communities, but who are vulnerable nonetheless.
As colleges and universities continue to take stock of all they’ve discovered about pedagogy, education policy, and educational supports through the pandemic, they should consider how these lessons inform international student education. By paying attention to the gains international students have made under online learning, and by seeking to integrate those benefits for future learning, colleges and universities will help to accommodate these particularly vulnerable students who give so much financially and academically to their institutions.