Staying in touch with family while at Rye is a challenge for many international students
Mohamed Shekeew has been studying electrical engineering at Ryerson for two months. Two is a significant number for him right now because he left two very special people back in Egypt: his wife and a two-year-old. While a daily video call via Facebook Messenger sustains Shekeew, it makes his homesickness more acute. The 10,000-odd kilometres are tangible all the time.
Shekeew makes his call first thing in the morning, and it often sets the pace for the rest of the day. “If there is a problem there and I know about it, the day will be a blackout for me,” Shekeew said. The distance makes it difficult to focus both on what’s going on at home and at school. For this reason, Shekeew and his family try to keep difficult news from one another until they have solved the problem.
“Living here is very expensive but if I talk to [my family] I say, ‘yeah, it’s a little bit expensive but it will be OK if I work at the same time as studying,’” Shekeew said. “This is a big problem for me but I don’t tell them how much it is a problem. In the same way, when my child got sick, they didn’t tell me until he became better.”
On top of having his heart in two places, Shekeew finds Ryerson’s culture rigorous, uninviting and isolating. He’s not the only one.
“I have friends here but the community is very hard [to adjust to] — working is very important from the beginning to the end of the day. The international students that I’ve met, they work even on the weekends. I tell them, ‘you should rest, go out, go to the cinema, the cafe.’ In Egypt, we didn’t work all the time,” Shekeew said. “They answered, ‘Mohamed, you are still new. You will be like us after one term.’”
International Student Support’s job on campus is to help students like Shekeew find their place on Ryerson’s campus and adjust to their huge move. It is difficult to tell just how helpful and accessible these services are to the students that need them.
“Travelling and embarking on a new and exciting educational journey can be exhilarating but it can also be difficult,” said Lyn-Marie Farley, the manager of International Student Support and Intercultural Learning. “The feeling of being homesick is a common experience for many international students.
Depending on personal experience, each student moves through the phases of homesickness and culture shock differently. Students talk about missing the comforts of home including their families, friends, food and even the weather.”
Students may not choose to go to this particular branch of Student Life at Ryerson, but Farley makes the point that homesickness is something that’s almost impossible to overcome alone. “Asking for help is important and we let students know that it is always OK to ask for help,” Farley said. The question of whether students like Shekeew are actually getting this help they need is up for debate.
Lu Yiwen is another international student who makes her way through the anonymous masses in the halls of Ryerson. Yiwen has been studying nursing at Ryerson for three years now, but she first came to Canada in Grade 10. She has participated in several of the programs that Ryerson runs to help students.
“Our approach to advising is not necessarily one-size-fits-all and more in alignment with helping the students navigate whatever challenge they are faced with in a way that’s meaningful and helpful to them,” Farley said. “For some students it might look like helping them get connected to a mentor through the tri-mentoring program, a learning strategist in Learning Support or a counsellor at the Centre for Student Development and Counselling.”
Yiwen has had a very different experience from Shekeew, or at least she has just stuck it out for a while longer and has come out on the other side.
“It was definitely a challenge for me when I first came here,” Yiwen said. “Luckily Toronto has a large Chinese population and restaurants [and grocery stores] that make me somewhat feel I’m home and take away my homesickness.”
Still, there were adjustments to be made. The jump from high school to university is a massive leap for most students, much less those who have to learn an entirely new language. Even years after making the move, Yiwen still uses the Chinese app Wechat to speak to her family once a week and speak about the ins and outs of their daily life.
“Overall, [homesickness] has little to no impact on my performance at school and work because of how convenient it is to communicate with my family,” Yiwen said. “It took me about a year to feel like I’ve adjusted to life here in Canada in terms of language, culture, etc.”