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Immigration advising during the pandemic

‘We learned that we have the strategies and knowledge to solve problems.’


The COVID-19 pandemic challenged institutions like never before. For the first time in their careers, international student advisors and their colleagues were pushed to their limits to adapt to an ever-changing environment and had to meet the needs of their students with compassion and cultural competency. Along with the first announcement in March 2020 restricting travel to Canada came more questions than answers. As students were wondering whether to come to Canada, advisors were left wondering how to best support them. The pandemic presented an ethical dilemma: society was grappling with two ideas that were suddenly put into a competition – human mobility and safety. Advisors also had to navigate institutional pressure to see student success in the context of changing travel and immigration policies.

As immigration advisors, we are used to ambiguity. However, the far-reaching impact of global travel bans and the anxiety from the pandemic could not compare with our previous experience. We relied on the strategies developed over the years when dealing with the “grey” areas of immigration advising and adapted them proportionally to this new giant “grey” rain cloud we were all working under. We spent countless hours reading and analyzing news releases and program delivery instructions from Canada’s immigration department. We talked to our colleagues and asked for their perspectives.

We learned that we have the strategies and knowledge to solve problems – even when you don’t know, you know. The rapid pace of changing immigration regulations combined with the transition to online modes of working meant that advisors were faced with new questions. There was a clear shift in the type of inquiries we were getting. Pre-pandemic, the majority of questions immigration advisors received were related to in-Canada applications. During the pandemic, the majority of questions were from applicants outside Canada. When faced with a question you have never been asked before, your instinct may be to throw your hands up in the air and say, “I don’t know!” As regulated immigration consultants, we must be competent and know the limits of our competency. As student services professionals, we must serve and assist our students. On the surface, these competing ideals seemed to present an ethical paradox but over time we worked through it.

When international travel and personal movement became restricted in response to the growing threat of COVID-19 infections, Canadian institutions scrambled to adapt to the new status quo and mitigate any adverse effects on student learning. Seemingly overnight, operations were moved to a virtual space which created a new set of challenges for students and those who support their learning. Initially, we struggled to connect with students authentically via Zoom and WebEx meetings, but soon we realized that these platforms allowed us to provide better immigration advising – we were able to share documents online instantly, share screens to review immigration documents together, and most importantly, connect with students where they were most comfortable. Even though the university has resumed in-person classes, we have continued to provide virtual drop-in hours and virtual one-on-one immigration appointments.

We also focused on online group advising. We created a learning outcome-based immigration advising curriculum. The curriculum is divided into four levels. In the first level, we target students who are seeking to enter Canada; in the second level, students who have recently entered Canada; in the third level, students who are moving through their programs; and, finally, students who are graduating. We also work with external partners and government departments to provide online presentations on their pathways to becoming permanent residents of Canada. For accessibility purposes, all our presentations are recorded and available to our students on a secure platform.

The challenges presented by the pandemic to international higher education were many. Chief among these was ensuring that students had equitable access to learning and had the opportunity to engage and participate in the “Canadian” postsecondary experience they had sought at application. As international student immigration advisors, it is important to communicate the limits of your knowledge to students, while also offering alternate solutions for students to get answers to their questions. To be effective, you must be empathetic to those seeking answers, you must have trust with the people you work with and in yourself, you must have strong direction and leadership to be able to project manage, and you must have solid communications within your team and in your correspondence with students. Lastly, although many institutions were adopting technology in their advising practice, the pandemic accelerated the speed at which it was adopted. We must continue to embrace these changes to remain responsive to our students’ needs.

Abu Arif is an international student advisor and doctoral student at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Natasha Clark is as an International student advisor at Memorial and has been providing immigration advice to international students since 2007. Danai Bélanger is as an international student advisor at Memorial and has been providing immigration advice to international students since 2008.
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