Going GlocalStudent Life

The Challenge: Integrating Resilient Mindsets into International Student Advising

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 Jen Gonzales.

My First Interaction with International Students

I moved into residence in my first year of university completely fearful and anxious. While I was excited for my new chapter, I was worried about making new friends, living up to new academic expectations, and ultimately if I would find fulfillment in my new community. As my parents and I busily unpacked, holding back our feelings and tears, we heard spirited laughter and joyous conversation coming from an open door down the hall. My mom nodded her head in the direction of the door prodding me to introduce myself.

I approached and found two roommates unpacking while getting to know each other. Melody was from Vancouver, and had moved across the country to attend university. The laughter was coming from Rebekah and her family, who were from Trinidad and Tobago, a country that I had never heard of nor met anyone from.

As we engaged in our first year experience together, each of us faced many of the same challenges, but in very different ways—making friends, pursuing academic success, and finding community. While I had a close network of family and friends nearby, my two floormates relied extensively on community building activities and support services on campus. I added to their adventures with trips to my family home for holidays/special occasions, and as I chose to stay involved in residence as a student leader, I payed special attention and care to the students on my floor who were from out of province or international spaces.  

My Life as an International Student

13 years ago, I came to Canada as an international student. Like many students, I did not know much about Canadian University Residence Life programs. My parents thought it would be better for me to live off-campus, as in Bangladesh on-campus housing always involves ragging.

I remember vividly, being completely lost in my first six weeks of school. I did not have any Resident Assistants or Peer Supporters to help me to navigate the Canadian educational system. Like many international students I had a very hard time adjusting in Canada. I did not know Canadian cultural nuances and very little understanding of Canadian pop culture. To be honest, other than Lester B. Pearson I did not know anything about Canada.

I was always confused—should I greet neighbours when I see them rushing to work in the morning? Why do people say “No problem” in reply to my kind, “Thank you’”? Why did they think I was rude when I bought coffee and didn’t say thank you to the barista? What does medium, double-double even mean? Why are people drinking coffee with sugar and milk? And why is there no sugar and milk in their tea? I had the biggest shock of my life when I had to pay sales tax. I could not comprehend why the salesman in Dollarama was asking for 13 cents more instead of returning me a cent?

I felt lonely in my journey in pursuit of joy and happiness. At the end of my first year, I was able to find the international student support office, and since then I have stayed in this wonderful field of student affairs!

The Challenge

Years later, as a Director responsible for International Student Support (ISS), I still think fondly of Rebekah and her family as I guide the Student Affairs professionals in ISS to provide transformational and transactional support for our international students. This year, I challenged the ISS team to meet with all new international students in a 1:1 capacity within the first six weeks of school. I had a vision of our students receiving intentional support, and wanted to ensure our students had access to the incredibly caring and knowledgeable staff in ISS.

Challenge Accepted

When my Director challenged the Ryerson ISS team to meet with every single student within the first six weeks of school, I was a bit hesitant, as I thought it would need extraordinary effort. I brought Jen’s challenge to my team of four international student advisors. They encouraged me to accept Jen’s challenge with a simple question—“When you think about your first six weeks in Canada, don’t you wish you felt supported in your journey in pursuit of joy and happiness?”

In response to the challenge, the Ryerson ISS team developed the Personal Development Model of Advising that allows our advisors to get to know all new international students within the first six weeks of class. Using Bloom and Martin’s Appreciative Advising model and Martin Seligman’s PERMA-V positive psychology framework, international student advisors ask positive, open ended questions, to assist students in identifying and clarifying their goals. Students are empowered to thrive, especially when they experience challenges in achieving their goals.

The 1:1 advising also enables the advisors to connect international students with critical support networks within Ryerson Student Affairs, to decode and translate campus/higher education jargon, and to collect information about students that enable them to intervene and support during potential times of crisis.

The Model

Stage One: Welcome to Ryerson

Prior to meeting with the advisors, all students fill out a welcome form. The information collected through the welcome form is used to support a student’s personal development, make early intervention if required, and provide support during crisis.

Our broad range of questions are categorized into:

  • Immigration information (passport number and expiry date, Study Permit, VISA info)
  • Cultural history, curiosity (if any), linguistic skills
  • Academic preparation (learning style, experience with citation, communication skills, etc.)
  • Personal interests, hobbies, co-curricular interest
  • Any other information they would like to share
  • Emergency contact information

Stage Two: Getting to Know Each Other and #RyersonSA

Fall Semester

In meeting 1:1, we intend to bring out our student’s strengths and encourage deeper conversation between the advisor and student. At this stage, by asking positive, open-ended questions, advisors connect with students on a personal level. Student advisors also take this opportunity to discuss ThriveRU, and delve into a deeper conversation about resiliency. Students are encouraged to set academic and personal goals. Advisors provide on the spot training on how to access opportunities for involvement on campus via ConnectRU and faculty based supports.

Questions are focused on the first four concepts of appreciative advising. For example:

  1. How are you feeling in Ryerson, Toronto, Canada?
  2. Please tell us what your ideal university experience looks like? And how?
  3. How do you like being supported when you are trying to achieve your personal and academic goals?
  4. Is there anything I can do for you?

Stage Three: A Check in on Transition

Winter Semester

In this stage, advisors focus on learning how students are transitioning to Canada and Ryerson. If students are progressing towards their goals, advisors will continue to encourage learners to make plans for their summer break. If students are not doing well in this stage, advisors will intervene to help them identify challenges and provide students with either direct support or warm referrals.

Questions for the Winter 1:1s are thus focused on the “deliver” and “don’t settle” concepts of appreciative advising theory:

  1. What was your highlight from Winter holidays / start of Winter term?
  2. What was your reaction to your academic performance from Fall term?
  3. How are you feeling about your transition to Canada and Ryerson?
  4. What progress have you made regarding your goal(s) from Fall term?
  5. How can I best help you this term?
  6. Are you thinking about your summer plans?

Stage Four: A Reflection of Year One

Students will fill out an online form reflecting on their first year transition, status of their goals, recognize their successes, and identify areas they can improve. We will use our RU Leadership Program’s Co-Curricular Record program, Level Up, to capture students’ first year Ryerson story!

Assessment: Early Success

To this date we have connected with 65% of new students in a 1:1 capacity. Early assessment results show an increase in student engagement and connection with their advisors. As part of a service learning course on campus, we will be inquiring about how this intentional model will impact students’ ability to use the ThriveRU framework to be successful.

A Full Circle Connection

I recently reached out to Rebekah and asked her to review this model outlining how we support international students. Now an educator herself in Egypt, she remarked how instrumental this type of intentional outreach would have been to her development in her first year.  

But I don’t have to reach out that far to know how important these conversations are for our international students. Hearing Arif’s stories, and the stories of other international students turned professionals in our field, it is clear that personal development, connection, and “on-time” information about our culture and campus jargon are key to our international students being welcomed and integrated into our communities.

Resilient Mindsets

I appreciate the work of the ISS team and their acceptance of this challenge. While it can be overwhelming to think of changing how our work is done, their demonstration of a resilient mindset has made this project an early success in supporting student learning. In the coming years we will build, incorporating student feedback, to ensure we are supporting our students in the best way possible.  

Our International students add much to our campus communities. In meeting 1:1 and curiously asking open questions, it is our intention that they will connect and wholeheartedly lead the way in unifying our community across the many borders that make us who we are.