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Making outbound student mobility a reality

A rural postsecondary institution shares its journey to help increase Canada’s low participation rates through uncertain times.


International student mobility, particularly short-term education abroad and study tours and cultural exchanges, is increasingly crucial for Canadian postsecondary institutions (PSIs) as it helps students gain cross-cultural skills and improves their employability and global understanding. The world is more interconnected than ever, and globalization permeates all aspects of socio-economic, political, and cultural life, including education.

Despite the perceived importance of international student mobility and widespread efforts to advance it, the Government of Canada says that « approximately 11 per cent of Canadian undergraduates study abroad during their academic career – significantly fewer than students from France (33 per cent), Australia (19 per cent) and the United States (16 per cent). »

Canadian PSIs like Keyano College, located in rural communities, have recently joined the quest to encourage and support more students to participate in international mobility. Keyano began by crafting a broad internationalization strategy (IS) to identify clear goals, overall alignment with institutional priorities, and effective resource allocation. Its five strategic pillars are: 1) strategic partnerships; 2) international development and research; 3) educating the college community; 4) international student recruitment and support services; and 5) inbound and outbound mobility for students and employees.

Keyano’s experience offers a unique perspective for rural Canadian PSIs seeking to delve into internationalization and increase student and employee participation in international mobility in an era of slow economic growth and limited in-person travel. We share our experiences below in the hope that this may help the development of strategies elsewhere.

Key successes in Keyano College’s strategy

Designated lead – A strategic decision was made to second someone full-time to the internationalization portfolio; the work progressed much faster than in previous years. As a small rural institution with limited resources, it was essential to identify low-cost means to explore the college’s role in the internationalization sphere.

Sponsorship – Executive-level sponsorship is crucial to ensure visibility and critical conversations on the benefits and challenges of international education and advocacy for resources and additional support. However, sponsorship is a two-way relationship, and results or « small wins » are needed to help showcase what is possible to the most senior level of the institution.

Broad engagement – To ensure the IS captured the essence of the college, an ad hoc committee of representatives from faculty, the students’ association, advancement, athletics, student services, human resources, and the office of the registrar was formed. As a small institution, there is less bureaucracy, making it relatively easy to assemble such a diverse team. Engaging a broad group of internal stakeholders helps create buy-in from the onset and enhances engagement with external stakeholders. That said, having such a diverse group sometimes meant contentious discussions and debates, which resulted in greater clarity around the vision and objectives of the IS.

Building on previous work – It is crucial to research prior work within and outside the institution. Several past reports from consultants hired by Keyano contained useful information that helped to inform the college’s next steps — for example, low-cost strategies for targeted international student recruitment, an assessment of current student services, and branding and marketing ideas. In addition, we learned from the internationalization strategies of several other PSIs, available on their websites. The college also took advantage of support and information from the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) and CICan and participated in the 2020/2021 call for the Outbound Student Mobility Pilot program [a partnership of the federal government, Universities Canada, CICan and PSIs]. This helped build the college’s international mobility program and served as a catalyst for other internationalization efforts.


We found that the following were important contributors to the success of our final strategy:

  • A diverse community and a rich employee base.
  • Alignment with provincial and federal strategies, which the college leveraged in crafting its strategy.
  • Support from community stakeholders – engagement with key regional organizations is crucial and helps identify synergies and opportunities for collaboration. For example, the college and the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development and Tourism have partnered to expand the attraction and retention of international students to the region.
  • Technology – due to the pandemic, Keyano shifted to online learning and student support services, resulting in the establishment of hyflex classrooms, mobile technology carts, and studios that allow for pre-recorded sessions. These have supported the college’s efforts to engage in virtual mobility initiatives.

Key challenges

Global pandemic – The launch of Keyano’s IS coincided with the pandemic. This impacted the college’s ability to launch several strategic initiatives fully. For example, although it was successful with its applications under the Faculty Mobility and Canada-CARICOM Faculty Leadership programs, travel and planned activities were deferred.

Budget cuts – The drop in global oil price and the pandemic has significantly impacted Alberta and Canada as a whole and led to budget cuts and a shift in government and organizational priorities. This has made it more challenging to secure needed funds to support the implementation of the IS.

Competing priorities – Engaging various departments in developing the IS often means balancing competing priorities. For example, the top recruitment markets for the athletics department vary from those that engage in research and internships. Ultimately, the priority of the ad hoc committee was on regions and initiatives that advanced the overall agenda of the College.

Rural PSIs: strategizing globally, leveraging locally

Keyano continues to implement the initiatives identified under the five strategic pillars, with a focus on pillar five as international travel restrictions ease. The college has also begun preliminary discussions on the next iteration of the IS, factoring in the successes and challenges discussed above and the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on international education.

As Keyano continues contributing to the internationalization agenda, it recognizes the unique challenges posed by its size and location, including higher travel costs, particularly airfare, fewer community resources to draw on, and recruiting talent to support this crucial work. Nonetheless, the college continues to find unique ways to serve students and build on the advantages its size and location present. By this, we mean: nimbleness in implementing the internationalization strategy, drawing on local resources and supports where feasible, willingness to adopt technologies and innovations amid the ever-changing global landscape, and leveraging the synergies that arise from being a tight-knit community.

This column is coordinated through the Internationalization of Student Affairs Community of Practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact [email protected].

At the time of implementing this project, Sandra Efu was a faculty member in Keyano College’s business department. She was then seconded to lead the International Education portfolio at the college. Avril Titus is the international programs coordinator at Keyano. She is currently pursuing a professional master’s of education with a concentration in global education at Queen’s University. Krys Munnings was the team lead for international education and student life at Keyano and is currently pursuing a master’s of arts in sociology at McMaster University.
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  1. Frederick Russell / 22 décembre 2022 à 11:58

    Sandra and her team did incredible work at KC. I am so proud that she has chosen us as her workplace. She is an incredible colleague and I look forward to watching international education and global citizenship continue to grow exponentially at the College.