Putting Yourself in a Student’s Shoes

I recently completed a professional development course titled Supporting International Students offered by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development (CHERD) at University of Manitoba. It included a great deal of reading about the regulations surrounding study permits and student work permits, which is interesting but not directly related to my everyday work. The best part of the course, in my opinion, was one of the assignments meant to get you thinking about university admissions processes from a student's perspective. The assignment was to imagine that you were an international student and explain how you learned about your home university and what process you used to study there. Now, I like to think I have a well-developed imagination. Indeed, some might say I have an over-active imagination! But I was stumped. I didn't have the first idea about how an international student would find information about Cape Breton University or decide to apply here, let alone what process was followed. Facing a tight deadline (the assignment was due in 5 days), I decided to do what I do best: a little ethnographic research.

What better way to imagine oneself as an international student pursuing higher education at a Canadian institution than to actually speak to an international student who was pursuing higher education at a Canadian institution! I emailed a former student from Saudi Arabia to explain the assignment and ask whether he would be willing to tell me about his experiences. I was thrilled when the response was positive. We agreed to meet at Lebanese Flower for supper that Saturday and over some of the most delicious food available in Sydney, we talked for several hours about why he wanted to come to Canada and what his perceptions were of the country (including some romanticized stereotypes), how he came to decide on Cape Breton University and the value of translating recruitment materials into foreign languages, his decision to avoid the use of an agent and navigate the process himself, how he learned that he couldn't just go to the Canadian consulate to apply for a study permit (a memory that made him laugh), and what his first few days in Cape Breton were like as he searched for a place to live. Of course, we covered many more topics during our discussion and even relocated to a local pub to continue a conversation on spirituality and folklore.

What I learned was invaluable for the purposes of my course. I discovered just how difficult it can be for an international student to come to Canada. I also learned where the system broke down, creating additional challenges for the student. But most importantly, I heard first-hand what it is like to arrive in Cape Breton from another country and try to find a place to live when English is a second language.

I finished the course telling my instructor, classmates, and just about anyone else who would listen that this was an exercise that everyone in the university who comes in contact with international students should be required to complete. I think that it would give everyone a much better appreciation for what international students go through just to arrive at a Canadian university to pursue their studies. And I feel like we might treat our international students with greater empathy if we had a better sense of the challenges they face. Perhaps we'd all do our jobs a little bit better and go the extra mile to be helpful and kind. (And of course there are faculty and staff at CBU who do go the extra mile everyday, but why not aim to have everyone doing that?)

But on reflection, there's no reason why we shouldn't engage in the same sort of exercise with Aboriginal students as well. Like international students, they often face challenges that are generally not encountered by domestic students (around admission requirements or funding challenges, for example). Learning more about what motivated an Aboriginal student to attend Cape Breton University, what his/her expectations were, the challenges faced with regards to university admissions processes, and what his/her first days on campus were like would help us better serve this student body.

I believe creating these personal relationships with international and Aboriginal students and learning from their experiences would help us better appreciate and respond to their needs. And, ultimately, it would improve their experience of coming to and studying at Cape Breton University.