Creating a home away from home

International students arriving at Queen’s for the first time this September can find support and community in a new country

Justin Kerr, international student advisor at the Queen’s University International Centre, advises students to get involved with activities that will enrich their university experience and ease their transitions to Queen’s life.
Justin Kerr, international student advisor at the Queen’s University International Centre, advises students to get involved with activities that will enrich their university experience and ease their transitions to Queen’s life.

One year ago this September, Tamar Mankassarian, ArtSci ’12, arrived at Queen’s from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates with nothing but her bags, a laptop that would become her main link to her friends and family and a belly teeming with butterflies.

Afraid she would be left out and disoriented as an international student, Mankassarian soon realized most of her fellow first-years shared her apprehensions.

“I had some sort of irrational fear that all the Canadian kids knew exactly what to do and how to act during all this, only to realize they were pretty much as clueless as I was,” she told the Journal via e-mail from Lebanon, where she is spending time this summer visiting family.

The Queen’s student body is made up of approximately 98 different countries and international students account for about eight per cent of the student population. Despite the international presence at Queen’s, however, fitting in at university can be especially challenging when arriving from outside of Canada.

“I felt quite conspicuous as an international student,” Mankassarian said. “There were a couple of people from other places I met, like the Caribbean or Spain or something, but if you asked people where they were from they would say Toronto or Ottawa or whatever. … I felt displaced by myself at times.”

Mankassarian said it took some time to get accustomed to being so far away from home, especially from her family. While most domestic students can tap into the home nest just by picking up the phone or even heading home for the weekend, international students are confined to the Internet for most communication and visits are limited to breaks.

However, Mankassarian said her homesickness was quickly cured by the hustle and bustle of life in residence, though. Between hanging out in the evenings and navigating around campus with fellow classmates, the residence community greatly eased her transition to Queen’s life.

“There was always something to do or someone to talk to and the people on my floor … became a kind of family away from my family, since we all looked out for each other,” she said.

Orientation week was also helpful in connecting with new people and getting used to the new environment, Mankassarian said.

“My Gaels were great, they made everyone feel safe and welcome. It was a great first week,” she said. “It lets you feel a part of something and allows you to meet new people.”

Adam Sprott, ArtSci ’11, arrived at Queen’s two years ago from Switzerland. Like Mankassarian, his orientation experience was characterized by the thrill of meeting new people and being in a new place despite the difficulty of being in a different country.

“Moving to Canada was exciting and went very well, even though it took me awhile to get used to new cultural habits. People in general are pretty cool and make it real easy for you to settle in and adapt,” told the Journal via e-mail from Switzerland.

Food figured prominently in terms of the cultural differences Sprott found when coming to Canada. While Kingston has many restaurants serving food from all different parts of the world, the abundance of fast food-type items left him yearning for his usual European diet.

“Everything is a lot more greasy and doughy in Canada than it is back home. I do like the food but it still made me miss food from home,” he said.

The other big transition for Sprott was the drinking age. With a drinking age of 19, most first-year students in Ontario are underage. This can be an adjustment for many coming from countries where the legal drinking age is much younger. In Sprott’s native Switzerland, the legal drinking age is only 16.

“Back home people are used to it and it’s not the main part of social events, making them seem more relaxed and chill,” he said.

Alcohol, however, didn’t put a damper on his social life. Sprott says he didn’t really do anything to cope with it and still had a good time.

“It didn’t really affect me, I still hung out with people and still went out,” he said. “At times when it did get annoying I just didn’t go out and would chill in res, where plenty of stuff always happens.”

Justin Kerr, an international student advisor at the Queen’s International Centre (QUIC), said although the challenge of developing a routine lifestyle at Queen’s is common to all students, it may be more difficult if you’re coming from outside of Canada.

“Trying to understand a new system is really what’s happening when you arrive at Queen’s,” he said. “We all have a set of underlying assumptions and international students have a much greater transition.”

To make the move to Queen’s easier, the Queen’s International Centre (QUIC) offers several services to students arriving from overseas. This year, students will have the opportunity to see a Blue Jays baseball game in Toronto Sept. 5.

On move-in day, QUIC works with partners at the bus and train stations to put up signs directing students. During frosh week, QUIC offers extended hours and separate orientation sessions for exchange, graduate and undergraduate students.

Kerr said the International Centre is a valuable resource for incoming international students because of its many welcoming facilities. While most students will come in to the International Centre office in the JDUC at the beginning of the year to obtain the mandatory health insurance for international students, there are also ping pong tables and computers available.

“It’s unlike many offices because it’s not just an office, it’s a community space,” he said. “Sometimes I just remind students that there’s a microwave for them to heat up their own food.” Kerr says that the key to developing new relationships and enhancing your Queen’s experience is to get involved.

“An experience at Queen’s is what you make of it and there is more to your experience than people tend to start with,” he said.

Kerr says that the best way to find groups and activities of interest is to know what’s going on. QUIC has a Twitter feed and Facebook fan page to keep international students up-to-date, and information on all clubs and groups at Queen’s can be found online. Kerr advises students to be tuned into as many extracurricular activities as possible.

“Then they can be informed and make decisions as to what they should get involved with to make this the best experience possible.”

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