International student offices must respond to disruption to student lifecycle caused by pandemic — University Affairs

We need to minimize the impact of the pandemic on international learners.

As international student offices emerge from the past two years, we need to ask ourselves where additional resources are needed to ensure we can minimize the impact of the pandemic on international learners. The students I am talking about here are those who plan to stay in Canada after graduation under Canada’s post-graduation work permit program and/or who plan to apply for permanent residency once they qualify.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada decided in mid-2020 to adjust the eligibility requirements of the work permit program so that international students who have difficulty obtaining a study permit and traveling can continue their studies online from their country of origin without jeopardizing their post-graduation opportunities in Canada. Without these students, Canada also had something to lose: a source of Canadian-educated and trained people who, in 2021, represented about 30% of all new permanent residents.

However positive and necessary these changes were for international learners at the time, they were also potentially devastating for their future in Canada. Although exact figures have not yet been released, many international graduates have completed part or the last two years of their home study program. Some have never set foot in Canada. This jeopardizes their future success in this country, as they:

  • have had little or no opportunity to interact with Canadian society or its cultural context and many have never met Canadians outside of their virtual classrooms
  • have a very limited professional or personal support network or, in the worst case, in Canada
  • enter the Canadian labor market while experiencing enormous culture shock, unable to interpret the social cues that surround them;
  • compete, in a limited amount of time, with all other graduates who understand the culture, norms, and even fine details like Canadian language patterns

As a result, international offices have faced one of the biggest post-pandemic challenges: changes in the student life cycle. The traditional model of transition, retention, school counseling and immigration support and various cross-cultural programs is being tested by international learners who have hardly used these services in the past two years. Yet now that they have graduated, they need significant support beyond this model. Historically, meeting international graduates to help them plan their post-graduation future in Canada came after working and interacting with them during their studies. They had been exposed to Canadian classrooms, engaged in daily life in Canada, and many had already entered the Canadian labor market on a part-time basis.

These days, we interact with international graduates who are new to the country and are in desperate need of settlement services, career counseling and cross-cultural training to fill the void left by the past two years.

International offices should expand their services after graduation to provide holistic support services to those who, through no fault of their own, require different support than previous cohorts of graduates.

In-depth training on the Canadian workplace, resume writing and interviewing practices should be encouraged and offered as postgraduate packages, along with cross-cultural training and various settlement services. Cooperation with non-profit settlement organizations is ideal, linking knowledge about the realities of international education with relevant training that likely already exists. As an idea, services on and off campus could collaborate on a fair where post-secondary organizations, as well as many not-for-profit providers, could showcase their services to recent graduates. Before the pandemic, this was part of the welcome orientation before students started classes. Reinventing these fairs for those with limited connections to Canada could not only provide immediate access to different providers, but also offer additional data on the type of services often requested.

After all, these are highly skilled and talented young people who want to settle in Canada and many of them will succeed. The difference is how they will remember when they needed help and who was there to support them.