By: Ivy Lerner-Frank

When Vaibhav Nagpal moved to Canada from India in 2018, he had never gone abroad, never left his hometown alone, and never even gone on a road trip with friends. He had already completed a B Tech in Electronics and Communication, and wanted to increase his marketability — and life experience — by studying abroad. He chose Georgian College in northern Ontario, a place he had never been. “I wanted to study project management there because I knew I could get a good education at a price much lower than Toronto. But there was still a lot to learn.”

Idara Effiom came to University of Alberta after attending a strict Catholic high school in her native Nigeria. The psychology student about to start her fourth year experienced a major mind shift when she began at U of A. Calling her professors by name and being encouraged to ask questions and go to office hours was something she was not used to. “In my high school”, she reflected, “the students could not even walk in the same corridor as the teachers. We had to call them by their title and name— it was very formal.”

Students like Vaibhav and Idara have adjustments to make when they move halfway around the world for their studies. From less formality in the academic setting to learning the importance of participating in class, attending office hours, and citing sources in their papers, the culture of the Canadian classroom is very different, and one that new international students may find they need to adjust to.

One way that students can be prepared for their Canadian education experience is to attend pre-departure and on-campus orientations that are offered by their institution. Vaibhav cites the orientation before his classes began as key to his understanding and enjoyment of studying in Canada. “It helped guide and motivate me,” he said. “I learned a lot about Canadian culture so that I didn’t have to go through culture shock when classes started.” Orientation sessions are great for meeting people and to learn a lot at once about what kind of resources are available – everything from housing information and volunteering opportunities to academic expectations and requirements.

The importance of original thinking and the rhythm of assignments is something which Aishwarya Kannan noted in her marketing program at Durham College. A BCom graduate from a college in Hyderabad, she said “In India, we didn’t have as many assignments. Here you have regular assignments with deadlines that you have to meet, not just one paper and a final exam. That’s challenging, but the Canadian way gives me a chance to understand things better through practical experience. Plus, you have to do your own work: you can’t just copy-paste like we did back home where the teachers didn’t always check. You can lose marks if you do that here, and there is zero tolerance for plagiarism.”

Taking advantage of the resources available at your college or university stands out as a winning strategy for Idara at University of Alberta. In one of her two jobs, she works with students in the Faculty of Arts as the international student engagement intern, helping peers navigate their academic experience. “The more a student can adapt to the informality in the classroom — that asking questions is a good thing — the better the student generally does,” Idara told me. “There are so many resources to take advantage of, from the writing centre to academic advising. Some students wait until it’s too late, or take advice from other friends who also might be having a hard time, which is not a good idea.”

International students remark upon the contrast between the Canadian study environment and what they are more familiar with. They may have access to labs which were previously off-limits to them as high school students. They may find that group work dominates their coursework, especially in the first part of a program. And, of course, expectations are high, both from professors and the student’s family. Both Vaibhav and Idara see this all as a good thing, though: the depth of inquiry is intellectually satisfying at the college and university level, something which differs from rote learning and regurgitation of information in high school courses. Group work may not be for everyone, but they both feel it’s given them the opportunity to understand how others think, to problem solve, work creatively with others, and to develop and showcase their leadership skills. The high expectations can give motivated students the unique opportunity to gain more independence and self-knowledge, and juggle responsibilities in real time, in the real world. These are tough, but rewarding lessons to learn as a young adult.

Adapting to a classroom environment with different rules of student engagement may seem challenging at first. There are many resources to draw on, though, to ensure that your study in Canada provides you with tools for a great future wherever you find yourself after completion of your program. From academic advising, peer tutoring and other tutorial services, and academic success workshops and support, all the way to career planning, your institution will have a myriad of options available to help you make informed decisions about your studies and future plans. Take advantage of them to forge your path to success!

Content provided for Maple Assist by Ivy Lerner-Frank

Ivy Lerner-Frank is a former Canadian diplomat whose career has focused on people: as a visa officer in Hong Kong, Beijing, and New Delhi, and as Trade Commissioner promoting innovation and education in Beijing and New Delhi. A previous Director of the Canadian Immigrant Integration Program, a pre-arrival service for new immigrants funded by the Government of Canada, Ivy is the founder and CEO of Lerner/Frank Consultants, providing strategic advice to institutions and organizations seeking to navigate the international education landscape.

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