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Reimagining international graduate student orientation

We need to be better at relating to and learning from each other, while also taking into account all of the complexities and power imbalances.


Following two decades of significant growth, international students account for roughly 17 per cent of all postsecondary enrolments in Canada, based on the latest data from Statistics Canada. A closer look reveals even higher proportions of international students at the master’s (20 per cent) and doctoral (37 per cent) levels. This increase reflects a growing dependence across Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries on international students as not just a source of funds for universities and future economic immigrants for the country but also, in the case of graduate students, academic labour during their degrees as research and teaching assistants. In fact, international graduate students are seen by the government as among the most “ideal” future immigrants, underscored in Canada by targeted Provincial Nominee Programs and the Quebec Experience Program. Compared to those studying at other levels, international graduate students are also most likely to transition to permanent residency.

As a result, the experience of studying in Canada as an international graduate student is now largely inseparable from the experience of being a “temporarily temporary” migrant. This positions international graduate student settlement in Canada – both logistically and affectively – as an important, yet largely uncoordinated, social issue. Most universities offer some form of tailored orientation programming over a day or two, although the content, approach and resourcing level differ from one institution to the next. Yet because temporary residents are ineligible for most federal and provincial settlement support, university orientation can play a key role in framing what is often a complex transition into life in Canada.

We five co-authors met as members of the Pathways to Prosperity Standing Committee on Student and Junior Scholar Engagement. After discovering we all came to Canada as international graduate students, we reflected on our experiences through a collaborative autoethnographic study on the orientation of international graduate students. Through thematic analysis, our findings indicated three themes.

First, logistical challenges related to immigration and settlement exacerbate a sense of exclusion. In the absence of government-funded settlement support, effective university orientation which addresses key logistical challenges can play a significant role in fostering international students’ sense of belonging. Second, international students’ families are largely invisible within orientation, which puts added pressure on those with accompanying children, partners or other family members. If universities lack the resources and/or expertise to support family members, this presents an opportunity to coordinate services with community-based settlement agencies. Third, orientation programming largely reproduces colonial legacies through:

  • depoliticized content
  • positioning international students as homogenous
  • relentlessly reproducing a (mythical) binary between international and domestic students

This suggests a need to reconceptualize orientation from a decolonial perspective and dismantle outdated definitions and understandings of international students as a monolithic group.

Overall, each theme highlighted the need for more governmental and institutional accountability and collaboration to “welcome” students. Importantly, that “welcome” can no longer be conditional on one-way models of “integration” into settler-colonial Canadian society – models which continue to implicitly inform both university orientation and settlement programming.

International student orientation can be so much more than a slide deck presented in a lecture hall. However, we hesitate to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution to what is, necessarily, a complex topic. Instead, based on our collective analysis, we offer key considerations.

Most importantly, orientation programming should be conceptualized as a two-way relational approach and recognized for its role in the settlement of international students, many of whom will eventually become Canadians. Central to our framework is continuity – that is, the need to recognize and practice orientation as a continuous process. International student orientation should be understood as a fluid and ongoing process rather than a single event or program structured by rigid boundaries and timelines. It should also more deeply consider the intersecting identities and positionalities of international students as multifaceted individuals.

Based on our study’s findings, we suggest six interconnected principles for orientation programming design:

  1. Embrace all students as complex beings
  2. Recognize the inseparable interconnectedness between international students, their families, the broader (university) community and global entanglements
  3. Facilitate sober conversations about historical/ongoing (settler) colonialism, racism and other forms of violence and discrimination, including higher education institutions’ complicity and responsibility
  4. Foster and model values of empathy, care and mutuality –without paternalistic or salvationist motives
  5. Prioritize a cohesive sense of belonging through two-way/mutual orientation opportunities
  6. Make space for critique, self-reflexivity and honest conversations about inequities and power imbalance within institutional structures

Although our study focuses on international graduate student experiences specifically, we suspect this framework will be useful in guiding orientation programming for international students at all levels.

A link to the authors’ full study can be found here.

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].

Takhmina Shokirova is an assistant professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Regina. Lisa Ruth Brunner is a sessional lecturer in educational studies and an international student advisor at the University of British Columbia. Karun K. Karki is an assistant professor in the school of social work and human services at the University of the Fraser Valley. Capucine Coustere is a PhD candidate in the department of sociology at the Université Laval. Negar Valizadeh is a PhD candidate in the department of geography at the University of Ottawa.
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