Aliens in Canada – Diary of an international student

Including my home country of Pakistan, Canada is the fourth country in which I have been educated. After gaining some college credit at home, I started off my journey as an international student by pursuing an undergraduate degree in business in both the United States and Dubai.

While there, I faced tremendous challenges on several levels.

These challenges ranged from culture shock and adapting to a new environment to racial discrimination. At one point I found myself laughing out loud when I heard the Canadian comedian Russell Peters say that Middle Easterners were today’s blacks for what they have had to go through since 9/11.

One thing is for sure, though: I was extremely relieved when Osama Bin Laden was killed. I was relieved as I had no clue what to answer when I was – often – asked by people in the American south “Where is Bin Laden?”

Today people travel for many reasons and more frequently than at any other time in our history. The spread of globalisation has made travelling very important, but how is travel for educational purposes viewed? Are international students today seen as travellers or as foreigners taking advantage of ‘our country’s public education system’, as some say?

We are, of course, welcomed by governments, as we are seen as a source of revenue for them; and by most educational institutions, as international students generally pay the premium rate of tuition fees.

If a country is well organised at accommodating international students, as Australia is, international education can be a major export. Research indicates that education is Australia’s third largest export, with international students generating revenue of as much as US$20 billion per year for Australia. Such statistics can change people's perception of these ‘foreigners’.

There are several types of institutionally sponsored education programmes that involve travel to another country.

They range from exchanges – where students from related faculties of universities in different countries have the option to attend a partner university in another country – to study-abroad programmes, in which students are encouraged to travel to another country for their education.

These programmes may last for an academic term or an academic year. They are pre-arranged, carefully organised and usually take place in groups, with the main objective being gaining experience in another country as a part of the globalisation movement.

Then there are independent international students, who for the most part set forth on their journey on their own. This is the most traditional form of foreign education and involves a student, like myself, carefully choosing a university in a different country to pursue higher education.

What international students bring

International students bring a whole new perspective with them. As an international student, I have always had meaningful knowledge and experiences to share with the class, for which I have been given overwhelming support from instructors as well as classmates.

International students also bring something new to the destination campus, as well as the place where we live. This ranges from our lifestyles, our clothing, our eating habits and sense of humour to our holidays and celebrations.

Moreover, international students bring the flavour of another country to campus so people can experience it without having to travel there. I have found myself very welcomed by some locals in some countries who considered hanging out with international students the next best thing to travel abroad.

No wonder a friend of mine, who has French roommates and works mainly with Philipinnos, happily admits: “I live in France and I work in the Philippines.”

The language issue

On the other hand, a major issue international students almost always face relates to dealing with the language barrier. This includes differences in accents and sense of humour and also difficulties understanding local slang and social habits.

We may meet the university’s English language criteria by gaining satisfactory scores on certain English language testing systems, but we may struggle to command the local accent or dialect of spoken English. Boy, did I have a hard time communicating in the American south, where at first most people thought I was not speaking English at all…

Despite knowing several languages, however, we are often seen as uncivilised ‘aliens’ who have a ‘weird’ sense of humour. Rather than learning valuable things from international students, some look down upon them as less knowledgeable due to their lack of command of a language that is not native to them.

To conclude, I would like to stress the importance of dealing with international students in a way that is of mutual benefit to them and local community members. I hope the challenges faced by international students will ease off as globalisation reaches its potential.

Teachers and university staff have a huge responsibility to instil elements of tolerance in society. I hope, one day, we will find ourselves in a truly ‘global village’, which the era of globalisation aspires to bring us.

* Faizan Khan is an international graduate student studying international education in Canada.