Study abroad course takes York U students into the heart of Europe’s migrant crisis

This spring, a group of third- and fourth-year York University students will have an opportunity to take part in an innovative experiential education course that explores what it is like to work on the front lines of the global migration crisis.

Jelena Zikic
Jelena Zikic

The course, Migration, Work and Society – Study Abroad, developed and taught by York University human resources Professor Jelena Zikic, is offered by the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and York International. It takes students on a journey of discovery from Canada to Germany that will see them meet with community groups, staff working in NGOs and government, and migrants in each country.

This is the second year Zikic has led the course, which she says has become particularly significant in the wake of the civil war in Syria and the ensuing refugee crisis. “There are enormous challenges in trying to manage the integration of migrants,” said Zikic. “It is a crisis with huge historic, cultural and financial implications.

“Very rarely [in the past] did we talk about migration issues or teach future leaders and policymakers on this topic outside of the classroom environment,” said Zikic. “This experiential study abroad course at York University provides students with first-hand experience of migrant integration issues and dilemmas in two countries that are often compared and described as leading the way on immigration issues.”

As a researcher, Zikic studies the career transitions of immigrant professionals to understand the personal as well as structural barriers to their career success as well as their coping strategies in the new labour market. The course springs from her own research and personal experience as a student who participated in several international exchanges. Migrants, in particular refugees, face a host of challenges once they have arrived in their new countries. Those who are trained professionals may have to pursue recertification, training or new careers. Integrating into their new communities and countries could involve learning a new language and understanding new laws, governments or educational systems.

Students enrolled in the course will spend three weeks in Toronto in an intensive learning environment. They will participate in a community-based research and learning module focused on current Canadian policies. The students will meet with migrant integration professionals involved in different levels of government, as well as those working in non-governmental and community organizations in Toronto. They will also interview migrants settling in Toronto. The students will learn directly from the course’s Canadian collaborators about issues currently gaining attention in Canada and how the country will deal with the expected 25,000 newcomers and the challenges that lie ahead.

Above: Students in the 2015 cohort on the plane to Germany. Pictured (centre) is York University Professor Jelena Zikic
Students in the 2015 cohort on a train in Germany. Pictured (centre) is York University Professor Jelena Zikic.

Students will then travel to Berlin, Germany to meet with German collaborators working in similar roles on the front line of the migrant crisis. They will meet with German migrant integration professionals who will share their views on how Germany is coping with its own challenges.

As they did in Toronto, the students enrolled in the course will interview migrants settling into communities in Germany, participate in the newcomer language classes and meet with community support organizations.

The experiences in both countries provide students with an opportunity to learn about, and critically compare and discuss the successful policies and practices on migrant integration in each country. The experiential learning opportunity, said Zikic, serves as an important vehicle for knowledge exchange between the two countries. Last spring, students were able to critically examine migrant integration issues in both countries and engage in knowledge exchange with the German collaborators.

Students from the 2015 course pose on location in Germany with Zikic (third from the right)
Students from the 2015 course pose on location in Germany with Zikic (third from the right)

“The course could serve as a model for how to provide Canadian students, employees, policy makers and future leaders with real-world knowledge of migrant integration and how to structure and learn from cross-cultural exchanges,” said Zikic. “Last year, students gained international experience and global citizenship skills that enhanced their chances in the local labour market and increased their career success.”

The students during a visit to a mosque in Germany
The students pay a visit to a mosque in Germany

Feedback from the students has been overwhelming and positive. “This trip was truly one of the most memorable experiences of my life,” wrote a student from the 2015 cohort. “Being able to actually experience the things I’m learning about and going to places instead of being in a lecture hall helped me grasp the concepts much more clearly.”

Another student wrote the following reflection: “The tour of the migrant neighborhood in Berlin was one of the most valuable experiences of the course. The conversation we had with the district mothers, as well as the tour around the neighborhood, gave us an insider perspective of the struggles and development of at least one migrant community. What stood out were the stories they shared about their difficulties and successes in reaching out to the immigrants living in Neukölln, and being able to help people, mothers in particular, understand German laws or communicate with their children’s teachers.”

York International is offering information sessions about Zikic’s course and other study abroad opportunities. Click here to download the course brochure. The information sessions, which take place in Room 242 York Lanes, have been scheduled for:

  • Thursday, Jan. 7, from 11:30am to 1pm;
  • Monday, Jan. 11, from 2:30 to 4pm;
  • Tuesday, Jan. 12, from 1 to 2:30pm; and
  • Wednesday, Jan. 13, from 10 to 11:30am and from 2:30 to 4:30pm.

The deadline for applications to the course is Friday, Jan. 15. For more information, email Zikic at or York International at

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor