The road to internationalization

By in Features/News

On Nov. 8, the University of Saskatchewan unveiled the International Blueprint for Action 2025 — a strategy to coordinate and integrate the university’s international activities in research, teaching and student experience. It covers the university’s objectives on the subject of internationalization through to the year 2025.

Earlier in the year, the U of S revealed their plans to increase enrollment dramatically in the next decade, in hopes of seeing a rise in the international student population. A highly internationalized campus comes with challenges, both for international and Canadian students, but the Blueprint for Action shows that the university is thinking about these complexities.

Chris Thompson Wagner, sessional lecturer in linguistics and religious studies and PhD student at the U of S, says the adaptation process that new international students go through goes beyond learning the language.

“Slang, little jokes and things that are culturally appropriate — even if you speak the language, you still have to learn all these things, and that’s really the most difficult part,” Thompson said. “The intercultural thing goes way beyond language.”

The International Student and Study Abroad Centre on the U of S campus.

Most international students experience culture shock — the challenging process of adapting to a new country. Thompson says that the integration of new international students requires an awareness of interculturality — a necessary trait in an increasingly internationalized campus.

“It’s good for Canadians to understand that other people are going through [culture shock] — it allows them to reach out to them,” Thompson said. “But then, you also have the people that are aware but don’t think it’s part of their lives, and so, they don’t care about it. People ignore the things that bother them — but there’s no way you can avoid this.”

To foster an international mindset in all students, Thompson recommends an integrated approach — a curriculum that promotes cultural awareness.

“Any course that can broaden people’s understanding of culture — different cultural practices, different family values, different religions — broadens horizons and makes you more aware of the things that surround you,” Thompson said. “It’s about offering people the opportunity to learn about cultural diversity and intercultural engagement — it’s a globalized world, and people should learn about it.”

María Celeste Nuñez, fourth-year environmental student, has worked for years in co-curricular activities targeted toward international students — she is currently the president of the U of S Latin American Students’ Association and a student assistant for the International Student and Study Abroad Centre intercultural program. Working in LASA, Nuñez has noticed that including Canadian students in the programming tends to be more successful.

“Seeing Canadians getting immersed in other cultures is something that helps because it’s not just you trying to fit in — it’s also other people accepting your culture,” Nuñez said. “Projects like Global Village create a sense of interculturality and don’t make students feel like they are minorities — normalizing different cultures is important.”

A lack of cultural awareness in Canadian students can make international students feel isolated and close themselves off to their new environment — which defeats the purpose of having a highly international campus. Nuñez says this was her experience when she first arrived in Canada from her home country, Ecuador.

“My first year here was the year when Ecuador’s earthquake happened, and I was devastated, but I was the only one here feeling that way. There wasn’t any awareness of it — my Canadian friends couldn’t see where I was coming from,” Nuñez said. “I bonded more with other cultures — I understood how they felt — but not Canadians.”

To get Canadian students involved in helping and understanding international students, Nuñez suggests education — she credits her ability to help other students to the training she received on the topic when she became a resident assistant.

“The information I received as an RA about mental health, culture shock and first aid has been really beneficial to me,” Nuñez said. “I apply it to my informal conversations with international students, and it allows me to help them deal with culture shock or direct them to university mental-health resources.”

Students participate in a 2018 Pumpkin Carving event in ISSAC.

The new International Blueprint for Action addresses the issue of a lack of international awareness on campus. One of the four pillars of the plan is internationalizing learning experiences, with the objective to “enhance international and cross-cultural perspectives in content and learning in the curriculum.”

According to Alison Pickrell, assistant vice-provost of strategic enrolment management, the university is starting its road to internationalization from the classroom.

“One of the goals is internationalizing the learning environment, and part of that is ensuring that Canadian students can learn from international students just as international students can learn from Canadian students,” Pickrell said. “One of the things that will be focused on in the next couple of years is activities that promote this.”

Pickrell also highlights the importance of sharing cultural practices through growing co-curricular opportunities, citing objective 1.3 of the Blueprint, to “optimize participation in co-curricular activities that are inclusive and foster intercultural understanding.”

“Some actions that are mentioned are strengthening existing, and creating new, extracurricular opportunities that purposefully involve both domestic and international students,” Pickrell said. “Ideally, some of these will enhance an intercultural understanding of Métis, First Nations and Inuit histories, cultures and current realities.” 

As someone who has planned and participated in many extracurricular activities for international students, Nuñez, has found that these are more successful when accompanied by more informal interactions. As an RA, her personal connections allowed her to help the students in her residence.

“We did a lot of programming, but I noticed that casual interactions were more successful for international students,” Nuñez said. “I became friends with them, and they would approach me, and then I could use my training when talking to them to help them — peer support is one of the best ways to overcome culture shock.”

The university is already pushing for peer support as a complement to more formal resources in their dealings with issues such as mental health. Peer Health volunteers are trained to help students and direct them to further resources if they need them. Nuñez believes that a similar initiative targeted to international students would be beneficial.

“I have people from my program that I can ask for advice in my classes, but with international students, there’s so much more — it’s not only about academics,” Nuñez said. “When it comes to mental health, there’s a lot of problems, and when you have conversations with someone, [it] is useful, especially if that person is knowledgeable.”

Pickrell also speaks to the importance of peer support. One way that the International Blueprint for Action fosters this is by creating more opportunities for student groups and initiatives.

“Peer-to-peer support is very important — everything from campus clubs to planned activities where students can meet other students,” Pickrell said. “I think something else that is important is student-led initiatives — the Blueprint speaks to the university … providing financial support, spaces and human resources to deliver opportunities that foster inclusivity and intercultural understanding.”

A map of pinned international locations is displayed in ISSAC on Nov. 26, 2018.

The university staff worked with international students when formulating the Blueprint. Esther Obi*, fourth-year physiology and pharmacology student and former University Students’ Council international student representative, participated in the document’s consultation stage.

Obi believes that opportunities like the study-abroad program — which the International Blueprint for Action aims to open up to more students — are important in the process of internationalization since they address the deeper issues that isolate international students.

“The university has done a good job of promoting study-abroad, and that helps — it pushes people to become more open-minded,” Obi says. “People who study abroad can come back and tell their friends about different cultures and what Canadians see as normal that others don’t.”

Obi hopes that the university’s plans for promoting interculturality help both international and Canadian students open up to new experiences and interactions — something that is at the heart of the Blueprint’s objectives.

“Coming to a new country, you just want to stick to what you know, so you stick to your international group — and then, you are still basically living the same life you lived back home,” Obi said. “It also happens to Canadian students — some people just want to stick to what’s normal, and they don’t know how it’s affecting the rest of the group. But talking to other people broadens your horizons.”

The university’s new International Blueprint for Action addresses many of the concerns associated with an increasingly international student body. It has yet to be seen how its objectives will be implemented, but their holistic approach — taking into account funding, learning experiences, support resources and global impact — goes to show that the university is taking its goal to “become the university the world needs” seriously.

Internationalization for the sake of internationalization is not a good idea, but the university’s strategy for the next seven years seems to be aiming higher.

*To protect their identity, the individual’s name has been changed.

Ana Cristina Camacho / Staff Writer

Photos: Riley Deacon / Photo Editor