New program helps international students and Canadians connect

Tamar Aladdin wanted to interact with international students on campus. Aladdin, a second-year economics student, thought he’d be able to exchange language skills and learn about different cultures. But when he sought advice on how to do this on the public forum Reddit, he was shocked by the responses.

“International students will quickly find people of their own ethnicity to be friends with,” one commenter said.

“It seems nice but also like a creepy and artificial way to make friends,” another said.

Aladdin, an immigrant from Syria, said he lost his motivation because of this. “That negative response … scared me,” Aladdin said. “I decided to stay away … and hoped that the international student office offered enough activities.”

This made Aladdin aware of the challenge many international students face when studying here: making Canadian friends.

A 2013-14 survey from the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) found that more than 50 per cent of students like Aladdin were only friends with other internationals. Studied participants also said that Canadians are “harder to get to know.”

The issue of making friends was the second largest finding from the CBIE survey of thousands of international students in 25 post-secondary institutions across the country.

GlocalLink will help international students make friends with locals. (Kyla Dewar / Ryersonian Staff)

GlocalLink will help international students make friends with locals. (Kyla Dewar / Ryersonian Staff)

To address the problem of integration, International Student Services (ISS) will launch GlocalLink, a pilot project to connect and facilitate group discussions between international and local students.

GlocalLink will partner with 10 students from the faculty of arts, who will have training sessions on how to openly discuss ideas, views and questions about social norms and Canadian cultural practices.

Arif Abu, ISS co-ordinator at Ryerson, said that despite hosting many social events, many international students continue to only talk to others like them. This division has been a “constant challenge” for ISS, he said.

“There are numerous reasons for this (such as) English language barriers, socially acceptable norms, (and) cultural narratives,” Abu explains, “but we hope (GlocalLink) will help solve this issue.”

Many Ryerson international students who attended an ISS event last week said in interviews with The Ryersonian that making local Canadian friends was the most difficult part of studying here.

“Here, the courses are simpler,” said Ali Nouhi, a first-year engineering student from Iran. “But I don’t know anybody here. I think it could be something cultural.”

Sylvia Ninyuemeng, a second-year business management student from China, spoke about her experience getting to campus on public transit. She said she would often get lost and receive responses like, “Do you understand English?”

Ninyuemeng said she knows a lot about Canadian pop culture, which helps her converse with others, but she still has a hard time making friends.

“It’s hard because I do not understand people and they do not understand me,” she said.

Anver Saloojee, a politics professor at Ryerson, said the exclusion of international students is common and problematic.

“They are in a particularly vulnerable position,” Saloojee said. “They most often come without any natural support systems like many other kinds of immigrants (do).”

Even students who come from English-speaking countries, Saloojee added, will face discrimination. “Because of their accent, they are assumed to be less educated,” he said, “We need to recognize and acknowledge this.”

According to Saloojee, it’s the responsibility of the university and the student unions to provide space, time and outreach to these students.

“If we are attracting students to come here, you have to create a climate of inclusion,” he said.

If the GlocalLink pilot project, which launches in February, is successful, ISS will broaden the initiative across all faculties to encourage more inclusion and integration of international students on campus in September 2016.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Jan.  28, 2015.

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