Most people aren’t aware that there are roughly 100,000 international students in Ontario universities, and approximately the same number in the province’s colleges, according to Statistics Canada’s most recent available figures. They’re a diverse group of people, with varied needs, and they pay anywhere from three to five times the tuition that domestic students pay, so institutions have a strong incentive to expand their international enrollment.
This differential means that some of our international students come from affluent backgrounds in their own countries, and can live comfortably, even luxuriously, but others have come to Canada on government scholarships and programs, with the expectation that they will return home after earning their degrees, bringing the benefits of their training with them. There are also refugee students, sponsored by organizations like the World University Service of Canada; technically, they are Canadian Permanent Residents when they arrive, rather than international students, but they face many of the same challenges, while trying to build a new life in a strange country.
Regardless of their financial circumstances, students from other countries face issues of loneliness and isolation. Even those with ample means may discover that their social status at home doesn’t translate to privilege in Canada, while others struggle to make ends meet. Skyrocketing rents push students into cramped shared living arrangements, and in ordinary times, many are to be found more-or-less living in campus libraries – an option unavailable during the pandemic. Canadian winters often come as a shock, and familiar foods can be difficult to obtain, even in a city like Toronto. For students from more conservative societies, the comparatively relaxed mores of Canada can be profoundly destabilizing, and raise all sorts of questions about gender, sexuality, and other aspects of identity. And universities and colleges are not impervious to the pernicious currents of racism and xenophobia that have emerged in the wider society, often expressed via social media.
Many international students live with extraordinary levels of anxiety. There is often enormous pressure on them to succeed academically. While overseas communication seems easier now than ever before, worries about family at home can still be crippling, whether because of illness, poverty, famine, or ongoing military conflict. The strain Ukrainian students are currently facing as they see their homeland being invaded in real time on all available media, for example, is something that cannot be fully comprehended by anyone who has never been in the same situation.
Of course, institutions are aware of the strain under which their international students live, and many have developed safety nets: social gatherings with opportunities to meet others and form relationships (drastically reduced during COVID-19), counselling and mental health supports, financial aid, even on-campus food banks. These programs are, without question, crucial. Alongside the official, institutional supports, however, many students depend on more informal networks of relationship to survive and thrive. Student clubs can fulfill this role for some, although this option, too, has been less available during the past two years.
Campus chaplains find themselves occupying a liminal sort of role on campus, acknowledged, at least to some extent, by the institutions within which they work, but rarely integrated fully into the official structures. We tend to operate in the more informal zone of students’ lives, striving to offer relationship, connection, and, in some cases, ongoing engagement with a faith tradition. Some of my chaplaincy colleagues at the University of Toronto actually specialize in working with international students, but all of us come into contact with this group, and their needs are a frequent topic of discussion when we gather. For some students, the religious character of chaplaincy is a powerful connection to home and family, but others are skeptical ± understanding that chaplains represent diverse traditions, but all seek to work together for the good of students, can be a challenge for those whose home societies are marked by sectarian strife. We also strive to offer international students connections outside the academic institution, whether introducing them to faith communities, or simply helping them to integrate in more practical ways.
This is where anyone can help. International students may not show up in your church on a Sunday morning, but they may well turn up at your food bank or your meal program. Your university-aged members may have classmates who struggle with life in Canada. Church communities might be able to offer practical support, but it’s often more important just to make space to listen, without judgement, without trying to sign them up to anything, genuinely trying to hear who they are, what concerns them, and what they need – recognizing them as whole human beings, the face of Christ in the face of a young and anxious stranger (whether Christian or not). And if the student’s institution has chaplains, don’t hesitate to reach out to us for help and advice!