Bringing the university experience to international students during the age of remote learning

Student working at home having a video conference with colleagues
Student working at home having a video conference with colleagues

With university campuses across the nation essentially deserted and everything from lectures to Orientation weeks now relegated to online spaces, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has drastically altered the post-secondary experience.

While these changes may seem unfathomable to the countless students who are now learning from their bedrooms, Canada’s international student community faces their own set of unique challenges navigating university as it is today. Unable to return to a physical campus, feeling a sense of connectedness to their school is proving to be difficult for many while studying thousands of kilometers away.

This poses the question: How exactly can universities create meaningful moments for international students to engage with their school community?

With the largest international student population at York University, this is something that has the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) has been working to address.

Lily Cho
Lily Cho

“We know that students are missing out on chances to meet other students and professors,” says Lily Cho, associate dean of Global and Community Engagement in LA&PS. “More than ever, we need to find ways to build community and connect.” Since the onset of the pandemic, Cho and the LA&PS’ International Student Success team have been designing a number of creative approaches to supporting the Faculty’s international students during this atypical academic year.

They kicked off the school year by delivering custom welcome packages filled essential York gear with to incoming international students studying all over the globe, then quickly got to work on events that would bring the community closer together.

This semester, they’ve partnered with several York University departments, including York International and Peer Mentor programs at the LA&PS colleges, to create resources for students, offer programming on academic-related topics, and raise awareness about services available to the international community. An integral component of these collaborative ventures is the team’s four International Student Success Ambassadors. Hailing from different corners of the world, these students have helped to develop and facilitate the various online activities the team has participated in over the semester.

With these virtual initiatives, the aim is to not only provide opportunities for social interaction but also to enrich learning. In order for students to succeed in a revamped learning environment, Cho says both their academic and social needs must be met. “Staying connected to campus, even virtually, is a key part of academic success for our international students because learning does not happen in a vacuum,” she explains.

Students gather online through Zoom
Staying connected to campus, even virtually, is a key part of academic success for York University’s international students because learning does not happen in a vacuum

Earlier this term, the International Student Success team partnered with the Division of Students on the York 101 program to deliver sessions which provided incoming students with the resources and peer connections needed for university success. More recently, the team organized a Faculty-wide meet-and-greet connecting international students to one another, their professors and Faculty senior leadership. Roughly 30 LA&PS students logged on to the virtual event which also offered a welcoming space where they could share how their semester was progressing as well as gain study tips for tackling mid-terms.

Despite the distance, these virtual events are having a meaningful impact on international students’ university experience. “The session brought together students from all over the world to share their experience, and taught everyone some ways to reduce stress,” said Nathan Dong, a third-year Business Economics student from China, who attended presentation in the Foundations 1000 program delivered by the team. “I found it really interesting.”

The International Student Success team has been working with one of the sections of Fundamentals of Learning course to provide custom programming that aligns with the course curriculum and objectives. So far, they’ve organized study halls, mid-term de-stressor sessions focused global perspectives of mental health along with social events like bingo and trivia.

While Zoom workshops and the like can’t possibly yield the same experience as an on-campus event, they have, though, helped to address the information gap some international students are experiencing. “Through these online events, we’re producing and disseminating important, up-to-date information,” says Saba Rafiq, manager, International Student Success & Engagement. “These efforts build a sense of resourcefulness in our international students which enables them to proactively manage the challenges of their whole university experience.”

Jiho Bak
Jiho Bak

Social media has proven to be a particularly useful tool for extending the International Student Success team’s efforts to support students. This August they launched “International Tuesday,” a weekly Instagram Stories series operating on the LA&PS Instagram account. Hosted by International Student Success Ambassadors Jiho Bak and Lamisaa Mahmud, each week they deliver content uniquely tailored to the international experience and perspective. From Instagram TV skits on improving your netiquette to Stories discussing mental health and the importance of self-care, ambassadors share “carefully curated, just-in-time information to international students,” notes Rafiq.

Bak, a third-year Bachelor of Commerce specializing in Management Science student who came to York from South Korea, sees her involvement in the program as a chance to give back. “I’ve always wanted to be more involved in York community and help other international students who are in the same shoes with me.”

Lamisaa Mahmud
Lamisaa Mahmud

Meeting students where they reside in the digital world has been effective. This outreach initiative has broadened LA&PS’ Instagram followership and built a strong community of engaged international students eager to tune into the next International Tuesday.

The pandemic has forced us all to be socially distant, but as the International Student Success team has shown, we can still find ways for meaningful connections. “We hope that initiatives such as the International Tuesday segments on Instagram and the meet-and-greet will give students different ways to connect with the us and with each other. We want our international students to know that we are here for them,” says Cho.