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International student offices must respond to the pandemic’s disruption of students’ life cycle

We need to minimize the impact the pandemic has had on international learners.


As international student offices emerge from the last two years, we must ask ourselves where additional resources are needed to ensure we can minimize the impact the pandemic has had on international learners. The students I am writing about here are those who plan to stay in Canada after graduation under Canada’s post-graduation work permit program and/or who plan to apply for permanent residency once they are eligible.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s decided in mid-2020 to adjust the work permit program’s eligibility requirements so that international students facing difficulties getting study permits and travelling could continue their studies online from their home countries without negatively impacting their post-graduation opportunities in Canada. Without these students, Canada had something to lose too: a source of Canadian-educated and trained individuals who in 2021 accounted for around 30 per cent of all new permanent residents.

No matter how positive and needed these changes were for international learners at the time, they were also potentially devastating for their futures in Canada. While the exact numbers have not been published yet, many international graduates finished either a portion of, or the last two years of their program studying from home. Some have never set foot in Canada. That puts their future success in this country in jeopardy because they also:

  • have had limited, or no opportunities to interact with Canadian society or its cultural context and many have never met any Canadians outside their virtual classrooms
  • have very limited or, in the worst case, have no professional or personal support network in Canada
  • are entering the Canadian job market while also living through a huge cultural shock, unable to interpret social cues around them ;
  • are competing, within a limited time frame, with all other graduates who understand Canadian culture, norms and even subtle details such as language patterns

As a result, international offices have been facing one of the biggest post-pandemic challenges: changes to the student life cycle. The traditional support model of transition, retention, academic and immigration advising, and various intercultural programming is being tested by international learners who have hardly used any of these services in the last two years. Yet, now that they have graduated, they need significant support beyond that model. Historically, meeting with international graduates to assist them in planning their post-graduation futures in Canada came after working and interacting with them during their studies. They had been exposed to Canadian classrooms, had engaged with daily life in Canada, and many had already entered the Canadian workforce on a part-time basis.

These days, we are interacting with international graduates who are new to the country and who are desperate for settlement services, career advising and intercultural training to fill in the gap left by the last two years.

International offices need to extend their services past graduation to ensure holistic support services for those who, through no fault of their own, need different support than previous cohorts of graduates.

Extensive training on the Canadian workplace, resume writing and interview practices need to be promoted and offered as postgraduate packages together with intercultural training and various settlement services. Cooperation with non-profit settlement agencies is ideal, connecting knowledge about  international education realities with pertinent training that is probably already out there. As one idea, services inside and outside the campus could collaborate in a fair where postsecondary organizations, together with numerous nonprofit providers, could present their services to newly arrived graduates. Pre-pandemic, this used to be part of the welcome orientation before students started classes. Re-inventing these fairs for those with limited connections in Canada could provide not only immediate access to different providers but offer further data into the type of services often requested.

After all, these are highly skilled and talented young people who want to make Canada their home and many of them will succeed. The difference is how they will remember the time when they needed help and who was there to support them.

Zuzana Schmidtova Ritzer is a team lead, international student support at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary.
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