Print Edition: June 3, 2015
“It’s two extremes living here: either you become a total outcast or you become totally outgoing,” UFV student and Baker House resident Jesus Araujo told The Cascade in a previous article about living on campus (“Baker House strives to foster a strong community,” February 2015).
In the article, the culture of Baker House was described as welcoming — the RAs organize small events like smoothie-making days in the kitchen, running teams at charity events, or day trips off-campus. But during that interview, Araujo noted that many residents of Baker House, especially international students, stay up in their rooms alone.
“The problem is there are a lot of people who don’t participate,” he said. “They don’t go to events, and this happens especially with [international students].”
There is a Korean phrase: “The crayfish sides with the crab.” It means that among strangers, a person will tend to stick with people from backgrounds similar to their own. International students often seek a Western education at universities like UFV for the career options it offers them both in their home countries and in Canada — yet when they arrive, they often find themselves alienated by language barriers, homesickness, and culture shock, leading students like Araujo to note their lack of engagement on campus.
According to the 2014 Education at a Glance report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Canada is the sixth most popular destination country for international students after the US, the UK, Germany, France, and Australia. To study in Canada, international students have to pass multiple hurdles, including a passing score on an English language proficiency test, a temporary study permit from the federal government, and proof that they will be able to support themselves financially through school. Post-secondary institutions also have entire departments dedicated to the smooth transition of an international student from home to their study in Canada, but that support comes at a cost. Tuition is usually double what a domestic student pays — and that doesn’t count housing, transportation, food, textbooks, and other costs.
Regardless of the thousands of dollars international students pay, the immigration issues that can arise when they apply to work in Canada after finishing their education, and the social barriers that can isolate them while they are here, international students are still applying for Canadian study permits in large numbers. Meanwhile, universities like UFV increasingly go abroad to recruit new international students, marketing their schools as providing a unique experience and quality undergraduate education.
So, do international students contribute to a multicultural and diverse learning environment, or are they a source of income?
The answer is both. International students spent $2.3 billion in BC alone in the 2012-13 fiscal year. There were over 50,000 international students in private and public institutions, spiking provincial government revenue by $80 million and funding over 25,000 jobs in international education.
These are prosperous numbers — not just for universities but for the cities in which they are located. As the Times Colonist recently reported, international students at the University of Victoria spent upwards of $30,000 per year in food, housing, transportation, and entertainment. Recently UVic partnered with Tourism Victoria to attract international students interested in improving their English at UVic while exploring the city’s culture and beauty, according to Tourism Victoria’s website.
Although UFV has not explicitly partnered with the City of Abbotsford or Chilliwack, it is one of the many universities that go overseas to recruit prospective students. UFV International has gone abroad to countries like China and India to facilitate teaching exchanges in programs like woodworking and art. It hires student recruiters and hosts visits from politicians like BC premier Christy Clark and acting foreign affairs minister Ed Fast.
Whether or not these marketing attempts are the attraction for some 800 international students currently enrolled in programs at UFV is unclear — but students continue to arrive, like the 50 new students enrolled for the Summer 2015 semester.
Steadily Rising Tuition
Newly arrived international students are here just in time for a tuition raise. For the beginning of the fall semester, international student tuition at UFV is increasing by 6.1 per cent — meaning the cost of one credit is jumping from $612.50 to $650. This is almost five times as much as domestic students pay, at $136.68 per credit. For 2015, the cost decreases to $520 per credit if a student enrolls in 15 credits.
The year before, UFV approved a tuition increase of 10.1 per cent from 2013 to 2014. The UFV Board of Governors minutes from that year state the jump was meant for UFV to stay competitive: “International enrolments have remained relatively flat at UFV over the past two years, despite the BC Jobs Plan challenge to increase international student numbers … In order to remain competitive we do need to ensure that program offerings remain current, application processing times are efficient, and recruitment agent networks become more focused and effective.”
Currently, this means full-time international students pay about $7,800 per 15-credit semester for tuition — not including living costs, fees, health insurance, or educational materials like textbooks. In comparison, full-time domestic students pay approximately $2,400 in tuition per semester.
Director of UFV International David McGuire says that because of provincial funding cuts to post-secondary education, rising tuition is a matter of cause and effect. He adds that the raise helps UFV stay competitive with other universities.
“We have to position UFV well with the competition in the Lower Mainland. We also have to take into consideration the steps we’re taking to try and provide students with the best undergraduate education here. So, keeping those two things in mind, we came up with a fee that kept us affordable relative to other institutions in BC,” he says.
For tuition, UFV ranks in the bottom half of public post-secondary institutions in the province. This means even with the recent high tuition increase, UFV is still a cheaper way to go for those considering Canadian universities.
However, cheaper doesn’t mean cheap. According to UFV’s website, extra education and living costs, as well as ancillary fees, can add up to an extra $12,000 per year on top of tuition.
Stranded in Suburbia
Rather than renting, some students choose to live in Baker House, homestay, or with relatives in the area. International students who live on campus generate revenue for the UFV bookstore, food services, and Baker House, while being immediately plugged into the campus community.
However, as many of UFV’s students commute to the Abbotsford, Chilliwack, or Mission campuses from neighbouring communities, they tend to show up for class and go home rather than stay to become involved with clubs or events.
So even for those who live in Baker House, the UFV community can be difficult to become involved in — mostly because it is very small, paling in comparison to the big student communities at larger universities like SFU or UBC.
The other issue with UFV is its location, as the Abbotsford campus is surrounded by agricultural land and industrial businesses. For those who live on campus, the nearest bank, clinic, or grocery store is a 30-minute (2.5 km) walk or bus ride away.
Sorry, What Did You Say?
There are over 800 international students at UFV, coming from Brazil, South Korea, India, China, and parts of Africa and Europe. Most of these places do not list English as an official language. Even though most English proficiency tests that UFV accepts have oral components, the English language is known for being difficult to learn, and many international students struggle with a language barrier when they come to study in Canada.
According to the 2013 Developmental Student Outcomes (DEVSO) survey prepared by BC Stats, ESL students reported that their English courses helped develop their skills in reading and writing more than they helped with their speaking and listening skills. Unfortunately, a lack of speech skills not only makes it difficult for students to develop social relationships, but can also hinder their ability to participate in group work and classroom discussions. In many classes, group work is essential; many projects are prepared by a team of students, and marks are often evaluated based on each individual’s performance in front of the class.
Aziz Alfadel, a computer informations systems (CIS) student and a global student associate (GSA) with UFV International, is one of those students. In his upper-level CIS classes, much of his coursework is based on group projects.
“It was a very nice challenge, but at the same time [it’s] difficult with your communication skills,” he says. “In my group, we were lucky. I was with a good group of people.”
Coming Out of Their Shells
Language barriers and geographical isolation aren’t the only difficulties international students face here. As UFV’s global engagement programming co-ordinator Chelsey Laird explains, they often miss what they left back home and struggle with culture shock.
“Maybe they’re missing food that Mom cooks, or they haven’t found that group of friends they can connect with,” she says. “We’re so grateful they come to us and feel they can trust us with that. That’s when we can help! If they don’t come to us and don’t say anything, then we can’t help.”
Laird adds that if a student is having issues, UFV International will refer them to a peer mentor or to counselling services in the university.
To establish a friendly and welcoming atmosphere right off the bat, UFV International greets students at international student orientation. Last year, UFV saw 232 new international students at fall orientation and 129 new students in the winter. Sue Chapman, UFV International’s student medical and permits liason, states that in that year, over 90 per cent of students enrolled attended orientation.
Five global student associates tour the new students around campus, as well as partnering up with smaller groups of students and taking them to get cell phones and open bank accounts. They become well-acquainted. Later in the semester, GSAs often continue to check in with students — even though they aren’t required to.
“It’s not officially part of it,” Alfadel says. “We like to know how they are doing, basically.”
UFV International continues to host events after orientation, too. There is the Friends Without Borders program, where students regularly meet to discuss different cultures and customs; a mentoring program where domestic student volunteers are matched up with about four international students each; and events like International Inquiry and Ice Cream, an inclusive space where people can gather weekly to share their different cultural traditions and perspectives through discussion.
Despite UFV’s struggles as a commuter campus, there are efforts by clubs and associations and UFV International to create a comfortable and inclusive atmosphere for new students. Maryam Momtahen, founder of the Persian club on campus, says that when she first came to Canada it was difficult to interact because of her English skills, but since then she created the club and is enjoying her education here.
“As a person who speaks English as a second language, I still have many communication problems, and yeah, sometimes I used to [feel] alone,” she says in an electronic message.
“For this reason, I desired to create [the] UFV Persian Club … In general, I like UFV, but I know I have to work on my communication skills.”
There are also clubs in various faculties or areas of study. Business student Fabiana Brusco, originally from Brazil, is looking forward to extending her involvement farther than just the international community.
“I want to join the [Business Administration Student Association],” she says. “I’m applying for SUS … because I want to be integrated with the university.”
A Canadian degree can get pricey: based on the 2015 increase, a bachelor’s degree at UFV can cost upwards of $60,000 in tuition alone for international students. There is financial aid available to them, such as a private student loan, but usually students need to demonstrate that they are financially stable before they begin their studies.
Some countries, like Saudi Arabia, provide scholarships for students to study abroad as long as they use their education to find work in their home country later. Alfadel, for example, has a scholarship like this, as well as financial aid from his parents and his job at UFV as a GSA.
“If they provided funding for five years, you have to go back home and work for five years,” he says, adding that this isn’t a strict rule and that he’d like to work in Canada.
“It’s worth it in the long run,” he says, referring to living away from home.
A Future in Canada
Although many international students choose to pursue a Western education in the hopes of working in Canada after graduation, this may not be as easy as it sounds. In December 2014, the federal government introduced a new system called Express Entry for potential immigrants applying for permanent residence.
Instead of submitting an application and waiting to hear a yes or no, students who have Canadian degrees are put into the same pool as temporary foreign workers and instead wait for an invitation into Canada. Students are subject to a labour market impact assessment, where the government verifies that the students are not in competition with similarly qualified Canadians for jobs. To live and work in Canada, a student must have a positive assessment.
Students can also be given in-province work permits, a component of Express Entry called the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). For 2015, there are 1,350 PNP spots in BC.
This limited number of permits, compared to the tens of thousands of international students in BC universities, means that the chances international students have of getting work in Canada after graduation are fairly slim.
Regardless of the cost, the experience and the education seem to be enough for international students to want to study here. Alfadel says he enjoys his time at UFV, not only because of the social atmosphere but because he likes his classes.
“I had the option to go to the US,” he says, “but the education here is much better.”
This means the demand for an international education for students, with parents who are willing to pay for it, puts a lot of power into an institution’s hands.
As for the isolated international students we originally set out to find, we couldn’t find them. Whether this is because the summer semester tends to be quiet, or whether the excitement of those just arriving is still fresh, the feedback was mostly positive — although the students we spoke to were all involved in clubs and events at UFV.
However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t issues facing international students. As Express Entry limitations and rising tuition increases, studying and working in Canada is becoming increasingly exclusive — even as universities encourage more international students to enroll.
With files from Jeffrey Trainor, Michael Scoular, and Ashley Mussbacher.