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Leading Thoughts

Nobody does anything alone

Expanding our thinking about support for international students.

BY IVAN JOSEPH | JUL 06 2022

I want to tell you a story about the international student experience. As postsecondary leaders, student stories can help us focus on the human impact of our decisions. When we can connect to what students are going through, we can think more holistically about the policies and procedures we put in place.

This story is relevant today because, more and more, the international student experience is becoming an immigration pipeline in Canada. No longer is it sufficient for us to simply provide an exceptional learning experience while these students are on campus. We have an increasing responsibility to support them in the years following their graduation, a time when they often struggle to find work in their chosen field.

The barriers international students face as they try to enter the workforce are not abstract. They are visceral, immediate, and real. I know because those barriers shaped everything about my early life experiences. They also taught me that nobody does anything alone.

Around the time of my birth in 1970, my father was working as a lab technician in our native Guyana. He worked for a Canadian soil scientist named William Jenkins, who was conducting research for the sugar cane industry. Dr. Jenkins, who also happened to be principal of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, was so impressed with Dad’s work that he encouraged him to enrol as an international student. So at 27 years old, Dad left his family behind in Guyana and went in search of opportunity in Canada.

With only enough money to pay for his first semester, Dad flew into what is now Pearson Airport in Toronto. Unclear about how far Nova Scotia was from Toronto, he had to draw on the kind of creativity required when you have limited resources. Mixing train rides with hitchhiking, he made his way across the country to his destination: Bible Hill, Nova Scotia.

From what I know of those early years, Dad’s experience had everything you might expect. It had culture shock and the pressures of being one of two Black students on campus, which brought with it all the challenges immigrants and people of colour face. His experience was also full of opportunities to belong. He joined a soccer team and the international club. And he found that many Nova Scotians were more than happy to extend him a warm welcome.

One of the biggest challenges Dad faced was that his status as an international student meant he had trouble finding work. When he went looking for summer employment to earn enough to pay for his next year of schooling, he often had to take what he could get. (At one point, he worked in a shower curtain factory lifting huge rolls as they came off the machines, not an easy task for a guy who was 127 pounds and 5-11.)

As he moved through his program, there were many moments when someone lent Dad a hand. One such experience came when my mom took a job in New York City to earn some money and give them a chance to be closer together. When Dad visited her, he discovered that to be admitted to the United States, he would have to demonstrate he had money in his bank account, which he did not. When he told Principal Jenkins about the situation, Dr. Jenkins immediately gave him $2,000 to put in his account. Nobody does anything alone.

Dad’s success as a student led him to McGill University where he eventually became a certified soil scientist. When he graduated, he stepped into a challenge facing every international student: finding permanent work in Canada. As a Black man applying for jobs in the 1970s, you can imagine how it went. To this day, Dad has a stack of more than 50 rejection letters tucked away in the back of a drawer as a reminder of the struggle.

Unable to find work in his field, he did what had to be done. He took a job as a hired hand on a farm in King City, Ont. and sold encyclopedias door-to-door at night to pay the bills. By that time, my sister and I had joined my parents in Toronto where we lived at Jane and Finch, a common landing spot for immigrant families. In time, the farmer (whose last name, believe it or not, was Goodwill) gave us a place to stay on his farm and provided pots, pans and enough basic household items to get us started.

When we moved to King, the opportunities my parents wanted for my sister and me began to happen. For example, I got involved in sports of all kinds, including playing soccer and running track, which led to an athletic scholarship at Graceland University in Iowa. That experience led me to full-time work as a soccer coach and assistant professor, which led me to become athletic director at what is now Toronto Metropolitan University, which led me to my current role at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Dad never did find work as a soil scientist. He worked his way up through the ranks at a pest control company while working on the farm. Through his creativity and drive, and the support of people like Principal Jenkins and Farmer Goodwill, he fulfilled his dream. He created a better life, with more opportunities for his children and grandchildren. By deciding to become an international student, Dad lifted me up. Without him, there’s no way I would be a vice-president at a university. And there’s no way I would have the opportunity to impact the lives of others, including international students just like him.

Like every child of immigrants, I feel a deep responsibility to remember that everything I have become began with my parents’ sacrifice. And as a postsecondary leader charged with overseeing the international student experience, I try to remember that what’s happening for those students’ families goes way beyond what they are studying in their courses.

My father’s story doesn’t belong to the past. It happens to international students all the time. Just recently, I talked with a student struggling to find a job so he could fulfil the necessary work period required by immigration policies so he could apply for permanent residency to stay in Canada. He ended up working at a fast-food chain and an Indian restaurant where the owner understood his plight. It is common for international students to struggle to secure co-ops, internships, or basic employment, let alone work in their field.

We bring in international students because we want them. We say they add value. We say they add diversity to our communities. We ask them to leave their families, their children, their parents, their homes. We invite them to enrich the learning experience for all students by offering their diverse perspectives. And we ask them for their dollars. In return, we offer them the promise of opportunities here and the possibility of becoming a Canadian citizen.

There are a lot of things we can’t fix about the system international students have to navigate when they transition to the workforce. But there are a lot of things we can do.

We can think differently about transition-to-work programs. We can be proactive about building alumni networks around them. We can allocate resources to support their transitions. We can provide support for two years after graduation, extending what we do when they are on campus. And most of all, we can accept that our responsibility to them doesn’t end when they walk across the stage.

ABOUT IVAN JOSEPH
Ivan Joseph
Ivan Joseph is the vice-president of student affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University.
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  1. Adrian Glamorgan / July 13, 2022 at 21:16

    A great reminder how we all might look out for the vulnerable, and offer a hand up.