Going GlocalStudent Learning SupportStudent Life

Proactive, Not Reactive: Supporting the Needs of International Students

Going Glocal: International Education Week is a series celebrating the partnerships that International Student Support (ISS) shares with colleagues and units across RyersonSA, all in support of students studying internationally from around the world. This year, the Canadian Bureau of International Education honoured ISS for their Glocal Links program by awarding them the Panorama Award for Outstanding International Education Program.


This article was co-written by Annie Jiang.

Across Canada the international student population increased by 83% from 2008 to 2014 (CBIE, 2015). According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education 2015 survey, the top 3 reasons international students choose Canada are the quality of the Canadian education system, Canada’s reputation as a tolerant and non-discriminatory society, and Canada’s reputation as a safe country. International students are invaluable members of the Ryerson community, and currently there are 2,692 international students enrolled at Ryerson. For many of these students, coming to Ryerson will be the first time they have lived abroad, the first time they have lived independently, and the first time they have used English as the primary means of daily communication. Certainly an exciting experience, although it can be overwhelming at times. While many international students do very well in their new environments, they face a variety of challenges, on top of the climate and the high cost of living in Canada’s largest city that all Ryerson students face. These challenges can negatively influence student adjustment and academic achievement.

If some of the challenges faced by international students are not addressed in a timely manner, students’ immigration status can be seriously compromised. Any international student with the intention of completing a course or program of study that will last for more than 6 months in Canada needs to obtain a study permit. As a study permit holder, international students must always be in compliance with Canadian immigration regulations; for example, each student must remain enrolled and make reasonable and timely progress towards completing a program (IRCC, 2014). This means that academic failure, which could lead to Required to Withdraw status, can directly affect their ability to stay in the country. Even if an international student is not suspended from their program of study, graduation can be delayed or full-time status could be lost, thus affecting the student’s study permit validity—as well as eligibility to work while studying or after graduation.

As educators we must recognize that these students are capable, but have different needs from domestic students, and we should be aware of the appropriate on-campus supports and guidance in order to help them realize their true academic potential. International Student Support (ISS) believes that it is essential to build a connection with students at the very beginning of their life at Ryerson by taking the initiative to engage students early and guide them along the way—being proactive rather than reactive.

Language Barriers

In the first 6 weeks of the fall 2016 semester, ISS staff connected with 65% of first-year students on a one-on-one basis. Data collected from these meetings showed that 71% of the students indicated that they want to further develop their fluency in English. This clearly demonstrates that language barriers are some of the biggest challenges that international students face.

Comprehending different English dialects and styles of delivery can be difficult, even for native English speakers. Although most international students have extensive knowledge of the English language, native English speakers often speak quickly without separating words, and use unfamiliar terms, phrases, colloquialisms, and cultural references. We sometimes hear students say, “I thought my English was pretty good until I got here.” Being unable to confidently communicate in English can lead to a sense of isolation as it is often difficult to make friends outside one’s first language community. Also, students who lack confidence in their English language ability may not take advantage of their instructor’s office hours, and may hold back on participating in class. Avoidance all too often becomes a long term strategy.

English Language Support (ELS)

ELS, one of the units of Student Learning Support, offers robust programming for students who use English as an additional language. Many of the programs are peer-led, and offered in both individual and group settings. Individual appointments with student staff can be personalized and tailored to the needs of each participant. Some international students have used these appointments to fill in language and cultural gaps, such as how language is used in different contexts. ELS provides practice, motivation, and guidance. Students learn to overcome some of the common errors they make in a welcoming, non-judgmental space. Having this type of on-campus support from one’s peers lowers stress and anxiety levels, and builds confidence and fluency in one’s English language abilities, and this in turn can lead to more community engagement. Friendships and meaningful relationships are formed, connections are made, and a sense of belonging is fostered. All too often, multilingual students are their own worst enemy, and because they perceive their English language ability to be poor, they feel that they have little to contribute. This is often far from the case, as many international students bring a wealth of knowledge and experiences. Positive reinforcement, exposure to other students who, like them, are working on overcoming language barriers, may be just what is needed for students to thrive.

Academic Culture & Expectations:

A common conclusion in the research literature is that academic culture is an extension of national culture, and therefore, the academic culture of a new country requires an adjustment on the part of international students (Brown, 2007). Many aspects of North American culture may seem informal and easy going, and yet, these same aspects can prove stressful to some international students.

Social & Professional Relationships

Cultural adjustment involves establishing relationships. Many international students hope to make friends with domestic students in order to learn about local culture, whilst at the same time improving their English skills. Many would also like to meet other international students from different cultural backgrounds; however, expectations often differ greatly concerning friendship, networking, personal space, and other social domains (Williams and Johnson, 2011).

Teaching styles also differ greatly between cultures, and navigating relationships with instructors and other professional staff members can be challenging for some international students. Some may be hesitant to call an instructor or staff member by their given name, or challenge an instructor’s point of view publicly in class as this would be considered “disrespectful”. These students may, however, expect to receive greater guidance and support from professional staff directly. They often feel “ignored” by their instructors and do not know how to seek help. For international students who work while studying, many may experience difficulties in how to handle the relationship with their employers due a lack of understanding of the North American work culture.

Let’s Talk Series

At ISS, advisors and student staff host the Let’s Talk series, informative monthly events that create a platform for students to learn through interaction with others. Both international and domestic students are welcome. A light meal is served and students sit at round tables and talk with their peers about different topics, such as academics, career, relationships, success, and self-care. Guest speakers from other departments on campus are invited to join the discussion and provide valuable information on specific areas. For example, at the Let’s Talk Relationships session, participants can join one of several round tables with different topics at each table, such as relationships with professors, relationships with employers, relationships with friends, etc. Students engage in open conversations in a safe environment with peers, mentors, and professional staff, sharing their stories, listening to others’ experiences, and learning how to deal with some of the challenges they face. By attending these sessions, students have the opportunity to socialize and connect, and reduce stress as they realize that there are other people who face the same difficulties. Through meaningful dialogues with peers and professionals, students gain knowledge about North American teaching/learning styles, workplace culture, how personal space is defined, and much more.

Lead Mentors & Culture Ambassadors

After conducting one-on-one check-in appointments with first-year students at the beginning of this semester, ISS connected these students with advisors and student staff who are either a Lead Mentor from the same faculty as the student, or a Culture Ambassador involved in intercultural dialogue programs. In addition, ISS helped students set their academic and personal goals for the first academic year. By establishing the initial point of contact/interaction with these students, an increased attendance at ISS events and workshops was observed. Students feel more engaged in the community as they are able to identify the resources on campus and actively seek support when needed.

Academic Tasks & Learning Styles

Some international students may be unfamiliar with certain types of assignments—for example writing in the first person for reflection papers or being asked to present one’s personal opinions—as these are not part of the curriculum in their home countries. What constitutes a “logically” developed argument is a cultural construct. Also, many written traditions favour a much more indirect style than what constitutes the North American norm. Learning styles is another area that can be very different in Canada from other parts of the world where the emphasis may be on memorization, or passing tests that have only one correct answer. In Canada, more emphasis is placed on critical thinking, problem solving, and self-guided research.

ELS: the Writing Process

Students can book appointments with ELS student staff at any stage of the writing process, from “unpacking” their written assignments, to planning, outlining, and revising. The biggest step is booking that first appointment. What a relief knowing that there is a place where people will listen, provide guidance, identify common errors, and not assume that “You should already know this…”

Study Skills & Transition Support

Another useful resource is Study Skills & Transition Support, a unit of Student Learning Support. Students can book appointments with trained Peer Academic Coaches to get help with study skills, such as time-management, effective note-taking, test and exam preparation, reading strategies, and developing personalized study plans.

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity is an area of cross cultural miscommunication. Data shows that the ratio of international students accused of academic misconduct is much higher than that of domestic students (Jordan and Belkin, 2016). Often this is a result of international students’ lack of familiarity with North American academic requirements. Assumptions are often made that, upon arrival, international students should be aware of what constitutes academic integrity. In some academic cultures, high marks are obtained by reproducing the exact same words taught in the classroom or used in the learning materials, as this is standard practice. Some international students may be aware of North American academic expectations, but lack confidence in their written voice (in English), and may “borrow” phrases from others or “collaborate” on assignments without appropriate citation and acknowledgement.

International Student Orientation Workshops

These workshops are collaborations with the Academic Integrity Office and Faculties/Departments to educate international students on Canadian academic culture, approaches, and expectations, as well as Ryerson’s policies regarding academic misconduct. These workshops stress the importance of following the regulations of academic integrity at the very early stages of their study life in Canada.

At the Let’s Talk Success session hosted in October, one of the topics addressed was Academic Success. Informal discussions were facilitated by and for students, and professional staff also presented at each table. Attendees discussed subtopics including note taking, time management, how to manage reading and assignments, how to balance school life, and so on.

Let’s Talk—Winter Is Coming

In the Winter is Coming—Let’s Talk session, which will be held in late November, attendees will have the opportunity to revisit the definition of academic integrity and its significance. After participating in the conversations, students learn tips regarding how to improve study skills, have a clearer understanding of academic requirements, and gain confidence in achieving their academic goals.

English Communication Support Classes

The fear of being charged with academic misconduct can stifle creativity, as some non-native English speakers do not trust their written voice, and as a result, may rely heavily on quoting the words of others in their research essays. ELS offers English Communication Support classes that provide opportunities for students to practice academic tasks, and skills such as paraphrasing, so that students can build confidence in their abilities. Most students are familiar with the theory behind what constitutes academic integrity, but need that valuable practice time.

Ryerson is committed to welcoming more international students and it is in everyone’s interest to help these students thrive and maximize their Ryerson experience. International students face unique challenges adapting to a new culture, both socially and academically. Having access to a strong peer support network and on-campus support programs is essential. Fortunately, Ryerson has a number of excellent programs that help ease the transition to life at Ryerson, and life in Canada. Help spread the word about how International Student Support and English Language Support help our international students thrive.