Campus leaves international grad students vulnerable

Foreign graduate students often face language barriers and funding challenges 

International students face persistent challenges when bridging cultural gaps.
International students face persistent challenges when bridging cultural gaps.
Photo: 

In her home country, Samantha* was a good student with a burgeoning social life — but when she arrived at Queen’s for her graduate studies, she found herself falling behind.

She said she spent all her time working to bridge the curriculum gap between her home university and Queen’s, as well as adjusting to the Canadian system, leaving no time for a social life. 

She says she was also subjected to racism by her colleagues for the first time in her life. The experience left her feeling isolated and affected her academic performance, as her department relies heavily on group work, she said.

“If you’re open to receive international students, you have to be open to adjust to them,” she said in an interview with The Journal.

“I’m totally disappointed about the university. I feel that the advertising does a great job at Queen’s, but it does not reflect reality.”

Most of the international graduate students who spoke to The Journal described their overall experience at Queen’s as positive. But several students interviewed expressed similar sentiments to Samantha — that the reality for international students doesn’t always align with the expectations — and said Queen’s needs to improve accommodations for international graduate students. 

Unlike international students in undergraduate programs, who are typically here for short-term exchanges, international students at the graduate level often stay at Queen’s for their entire degree. There’s also less of an emphasis on integrating foreign students differently than domestic students at the graduate level.

According to the Queen’s 2014-15 enrolment report, international students make up 24.8 per cent of the full-time graduate student population. While the number includes exchange students, the majority of international students in graduate programs come to Queen’s for the full duration of their degree.  

 “20 percent is one fifth. That is a significant piece,” Nilani Loganathan, an adviser at the Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC), said. 

QUIC, a non-academic support service, provides a number of resources, including language support, international student health insurance, orientation event, inter-cultural courses and advisers. The advisers are particularly significant — they offer students support throughout their transition and collaborate with Peer Advisors and Commissioners through the School of Graduate and Professional Studies (SGPS).

“International students come to Queen’s and to Kingston with unique skills, perspectives, ways of learning, and different approaches to academia. And our job, or my job, is to remove certain barriers or hurdles that might get in the way of reaching [their] potential,” Loganathan said. 

(Photo by Kendra Pierroz)

Some of these barriers, according to Loganathan, include language, cultural background, funding and miscommunication between supervisors and graduate students coming from international backgrounds. 

Students have to pass a language exam to apply to a graduate program at Queen’s, but there’s a difference between having the language skills necessary for academic work and for social interaction. 

“For me, the most challenging issue at first was English,” Natalia Mukhina, a second year Master’s student in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, told The Journal via Facebook Messenger. 

“We all [passed] IELTS/TOEFL before applying, but exams and real life are not the same… [at first], many of us, even those from English environment, have some problems with social talks.” 

Mukhina says her experience at Queen’s has been positive. Support from her supervisor and the QUIC conversational buddy program helped her overcome the original culture shock and language barriers. She said further efforts to familiarize foreign students with Canadian English would help the acclimatization process, however.

She wasn’t alone in that assessment. Bowen Yang, an international Masters student in Chemical Engineering, said the Intercultural Competence courses through the QUIC are essential for students coming from abroad.

“Before I took that course, I thought ‘how are you’, ‘how do you do’ — you actually need to tell someone ‘oh I’m fine, I’m doing this and I’m doing that.’ After that course I realized ‘how are you’ really means like pretty much ‘hi’,” Yang said. 

Yang added that while international students should take initiative to learn the language and customs in Canada, it’s also the job of the University and students on campus to make international students feel welcome. Neither of the two orientation weeks he attended during his time at Queen’s achieved that, he said.

“The culture that domestic students have is like the mainstream throughout the entire orientation week. There’s no part that encourages international students to jump into this culture,” Yang said. 

Although aspects of graduate orientation week are geared towards international students, there is no equivalent to New, Exchange and Worldly Transfer Students Orientation Week (NEWTS) — an undergraduate orientation week geared specifically to acquaint incoming international students with Queen’s and Kingston. 

Funding is also a challenge. International students’ funding packages are usually higher to make up for  their tuition costs, which are usually double that of domestic students, but they have fewer opportunities for external funding. Although international graduate students are eligible for some awards, such as the Ontario Trillium Award and the Ontario Graduate Scholarships, the majority of awards are geared towards Canadian citizens or permanent residents.  

(Graphic by Ashley Quan)

Saadul Islam, an international student in the second year of his PhD program in Epidemiology, said he’s lucky to have received a scholarship in the first year of his studies at Queen’s. 

“It’s a general thing in Canada right now — funding is pretty tough to get for international students,” Islam said. 

International students are also under more pressure to finish their degree in their funding-eligible years. Students can only receive the International Tuition Award (ITA) and the Principal’s International Doctoral Award (PIDA) in year one and two of a Master’s degree and years one through four of a PhD. 

It’s not unusual for students to extend their studies above the allotted funding years, however —an issue that’s exacerbated by supervisors if they aren’t aware of just how problematic an extra semester can be. 

“For international students, there can be quite a bit of a problem after you finish your fourth year, because you’ll be asked to pay like 6,000 [dollars] just to extend your PhD work for another semester,” an international graduate student in Cultural Studies said. The student requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their standing in the department. 

The connection between supervision and funding extends even further in certain disciplines. 

“Speaking broadly in terms of the sciences, there are many cases in which students funding is tied directly to their supervisor. And that means that the supervisor wields a great deal of power,” Jeremy Butler, one of three advisors available through the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS), said. 

“This in itself doesn’t mean there’s always a problem, but it means that international students are vulnerable in a way that other students are not,” he said. 

“Because if there’s an issue with the supervisor and if there’s a rupture in the relationship, perhaps, and the student can’t find another supervisor, then they’re not only unable to finish their degree, but unable to even stay in the country.” 

Supervisors are often deeply involved in the financial situation of international graduate students, whether they’re providing funding or affecting time to completion, and so faculty working with international students need to be aware of the additional stresses on those students.

 “We have to be certain that incoming students have the types of support systems they require, that they have all the skills that they need to succeed (including language skills), and we should also ensure that supervisors have the support they need,” Wayne Cox, a professor in the Political Science Department, said in an email to The Journal. In a previous interview, Cox said an international student he supervised took an extra two years to complete their degree due to cultural and language barriers.

Karen Dubinsky, a professor in the History Department, has supervised a number of international students. She said acknowledging that international students come from a different cultural background is important for helping them transition.

“I work with students for whom having books in the library is not something you can take for granted, so they’re very well prepared … I wish Queen’s was more conscious, I suppose, of the obligation that the University has, that the institution has, to help them when they’re here.”

While Dubinsky praised the work of organizations like the QUIC, she said the university could do a better job recognizing the social, cultural and language differences certain students face upon their arrival at Queen’s. 

The International Student Commissioner through the SGPS, Sara SidAhmed, says while her services are specifically geared towards helping connect international students with resources, she hasn’t been contacted by many students. She says that may be because few students are aware of her position and the commission. 

 “International graduate students with academic problems should reach out to the International Commissioner or the student advisers through the SGPS and not the QUIC, because QUIC does not do academic support,” SidAhmed said. 

She said students should go to her or the SGPS executive for academic support and advocacy, whose job is also to advocate on the behalf of graduate students — including on international specific issues. 

“[Students] can always reach out here,” she said. “I’m always available for whenever they need it, and I can lead them to a shorter way they can solve their problems.” 

*Samantha is a pseudonym. The Journal has elected not to use the student’s name at their request. 

 

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