Guangzhou, China

Navigating a new mosaic

Spring/Summer 2019 issue

Words by Marlena Cross

A photo of Vidal Zhou

The world of the international student

Moving to a different country is a nerve-racking experience for anyone, but consider being young, alone and a novice with the local language. Add that to the stress associated with the rigours of post-secondary education, having to make friends and build a support system, plus the not-so-welcoming Calgary weather, and those who choose to come here to study can only be characterized as adventurous … and brave.

Vidal Zhou is a fourth-year Bachelor of Business Administration student at Mount Royal who made the transition from her home in Guangzhou, China to Calgary in 2014. She now refers to the MRU campus as her second home, but it didn’t always feel that way.

With a Chinese name of Yixin [Eee-Shing], Zhou renamed herself and launched a new life. Since then, she’s navigated her way through learning a different language, new social norms and distinct educational expectations. Now a leader among her peers, she helped establish the MRU China Social and Cultural Club and is currently the vice-president, marketing, of the group. She is also a learning peer in MRU’s Peer Learning Program and a volunteer with the International Student Support Centre on campus.

Moraine Lake, Canada

This is the unique perspective of vidal zhou

From China to Canada

SUMMIT: What is the tradition of assigning English names to Chinese students and how did you come to be Vidal?

VIDAL: We start learning English in China in elementary or even preschool. My first English name was Cindy, but I thought that was too generic ... there were at least five Cindys in my class! A friend of mine bought me a bottle of ice wine as a gift after returning from Canada. I loved it so much that I made the name, Vidal, my English name.

Vidal Zhou skating at Bowness Park

International student Vidal Zhou discovered a love of skating in Calgary.

SUMMIT: How did you hear about Mount Royal University and decide to come?

VIDAL: I was thinking I wanted to broaden my horizons. I applied at a few Canadian universities but my mom was being protective and wanted me to study where we had relatives. My uncle (in Calgary) helped me apply to MRU.

SUMMIT: Was moving to Calgary your first-ever visit to Canada?

VIDAL: In 2010, I took a trip to Canada and spent maybe only two days with my uncle’s family and went east to Toronto before going back to China. Then, when I wanted to go to MRU, I did my English Language Program for three months from January to March. Then I applied to the degree program.

Living in Calgary

SUMMIT: What was your biggest challenge initially?

VIDAL: That’s kind of a funny story. The first year here, I was living with my uncle. The public transit was a really huge issue for me — especially during winter. The snow was very hairy. I was waiting in the snow for a long time and didn’t know where I was going. I thought I had made a mistake, like, what am I doing here?

SUMMIT: What do you like about living in Calgary now?

VIDAL: It never snows in the city I’m from. So the first time I was here I was so excited about the snow, but I started to hate it, then got used to it.

I love that Calgary is so close to nature. The population is definitely smaller and I just feel like it’s a more peaceful life. I am more adapted to the lifestyle here. I like skating and taking beautiful pictures.

SUMMIT: Do you have any tips for students who are moving to Calgary to study?

VIDAL: Yes! Live in residence, even if you have relatives. Just go straight into residence. It would be really great. Good for making local friends (and meeting other international/exchange students).

Did you know?

Mount Royal has a number of supports available to help international students feel more at home.

  • To help create a more inclusive and respectful campus, MRU has offered all students the option to indicate a preferred name on their academic record since June 2017. This has helped international students reduce confusion in the classroom as this name is indicated on class lists and student ID cards.
  • MRU offers an English Language Program for students who need to upgrade their English language skills to meet the admission requirements of a degree program.
  • The International Student Support Centre offers peer programs to practise conversational skills and Student Learning Services holds writing workshops throughout the year.
  • Residence Services guarantees placement for all students enrolled in their first year at Mount Royal. MRU’s residences are also among some of the more affordable on-campus living options in the province.
  • While homesickness can’t necessarily be cured by an event or peer support, programs offered at the International Student Support Centre aim to bring people together who are experiencing the same thing. Mount Royal hosted its first International Education Week on campus this fall to celebrate the cultures and diversity of students on campus.
  • All students have access to on-campus medical, dental and mental health support. Wellness Services offers counselling and the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy addresses the diverse spiritual needs of students.
  • Mount Royal partners with institutions all over the world, including China. The internationalization plan sets out to broaden domestic students’ world views through international field schools, work placements and exchanges, all supported by the Office of International Education.
  • As the University works to increase its international population, the Office of International Education has added its first regulated Canadian immigration consultant to the team. This role is crucial to supporting students who are new to Canada and considering options for their future.

Settling into studies

SUMMIT: How did you find your initial experience?

VIDAL: First, I found that it’s not like the learning style in China. The English style we learn in China is just for exams, not for oral or actual casual language. When I was in a conversation with my local friends, they would tell a joke (more related to a TV show or some language joke), that I couldn’t understand, and I was feeling a little lost there in the conversation because I couldn’t understand their humour. I didn’t have access to Netflix in China but I have Netflix here. It’s really useful to pick up some basic shows and try to follow with subtitles. Plus, I did a lot of practise and tried not to be shy.

SUMMIT: How does the classroom environment differ from your classes in China?

VIDAL: When I first got accepted to the bachelor program here, I had to try to adjust to the teaching technique for the classroom and the structure. And the professors talk really fast. I found I had to go over the notes or use office hours a little more.

I feel like Canada has a higher quality education for university education in general. To get a good education in China it is very competitive for a good school, but China is making adjustments to that. I feel like the culture here, the study environment, I feel is at a higher level. Most of the students I know in class are dedicated and focused on what they’re doing.

SUMMIT: MRU has a lot of collaborative projects in its learning model; have you felt comfortable working in groups?

VIDAL: Honestly, I actually was a little bit scared of it during my first class, which had group projects. I wasn’t sure if I could work with people from different cultural backgrounds and from different language backgrounds as well. But, I have to try, that’s the nature of it. The group projects encourage students to eliminate the gap between school and the actual work environment.

The biggest challenges

SUMMIT: What’s the hardest part about being away from home?

VIDAL: Being homesick. Sometimes when I got sick or got into trouble, I felt like there is no one to help me out. Even if I went to the doctor and used counselling services, I have to describe my trouble in English. That’s tough for me because I want to express myself, what I’m going through in my first language, in my mother tongue. It’s a mental health issue — that’s the hardest part.

SUMMIT: Could Canadian students benefit from going to China?

VIDAL: Canada is a very multi cultural society and very open. But, there are stereotypes towards the Chinese and to China, and probably towards other nations as well. I feel like, if people could have a more open mind and be open to travel experiences, it may eliminate those stereotypes.

SUMMIT: Do current events and recent tensions between Canada and China make you worried?

VIDAL: A little bit. I would prefer a better relationship between Canada and China. Everyone, wherever they come from, should respect the law of the place where they are. I won’t say I support Canada or China, I just want these two countries to be friends, because I value all our friendships that are building up and I don’t want it to just fade away.

Preparing for the future

SUMMIT: Do you want to stay in Canada?

VIDAL: I would love to stay, to be honest. During an internship in my hometown, it made me realize that maybe I am more adjusted to the society or culture here. Most of my adult life has been here, so I feel like I am more adapted to this environment.

Calgary, Canada

A worldly education

In the classroom and in the field, Mount Royal is preparing graduates for an international job market

Words by Melissa Rolfe

Whether it’s for a career in business, politics or anything outside Canada, graduating students need exposure to international practices and perspectives. Laying the foundation to ensure more students get the experiences they need to gain an edge in a globalized world is a post-secondary priority.

An internationalization strategic plan is guiding Mount Royal University through a process of building the right supports for international students, enhancing research, stepping up recruitment and helping more domestic students afford the cost of international field schools and exchanges.

Whether it’s for a career in business, politics or anything outside Canada, graduating students need exposure to international practices and perspectives. Laying the foundation to ensure more students get the experiences they need to gain an edge in a globalized world is a post-secondary priority.

An internationalization strategic plan is guiding Mount Royal University through a process of building the right supports for international students, enhancing research, stepping up recruitment and helping more domestic students afford the cost of international field schools and exchanges.

Starting from the beginning

“You’ve got to build the foundation first. That’s really what we’ve been trying to do in the last year or two,” explains Dianne MacDonald, director of the Office of International Education. “You have to create the infrastructure and the programming to support it before you say ‘here we are.’”

That infrastructure includes new policies and procedures around international recruiting, says Alice MacKichan, director of the Admissions and Recruitment Office, noting that while Mount Royal has been admitting international credit students for some time, the University lacked the systems to proactively recruit from abroad.

In the 2017/18 academic year, nearly two per cent of MRU’s student population of 14,258 students were international students. The goal is to increase that number to five per cent by 2025.

“We’re building from the ground up and being very selective,” MacKichan says. “We didn’t have any of the infrastructure built around the agent recruitment process, as they need to recruit on our behalf.”

International agents are people working in target countries to establish relationships with interested prospective students and help them through the Canadian application process for Mount Royal.

A photo of Dianne MacDonald

“These students have made some very big life-changing decisions to move here and study at Mount Royal.”

— Dianne MacDonald
Director, Office of International Education

In 2017/18, Enrolment Services closely reviewed admission practices and policies through the international lens to see how they could be more friendly to the international market while still adhering to the University’s own admission policy and stringent requirements set out by Alberta and Canada.

The University signed a contract with its first international recruiting agent, based in India, in 2018 and determined its best prospects are in countries where demand for an undergraduate education is high: India, China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. The programs of greatest interest are in science and business.

“As with any recruitment cycle, if you’re going into a new market you’re looking at a minimum of three years before you break into that market,” explains MacKichan. “Internationally that can take longer. Three to five years to break into a new market would not be unexpected.”

The infrastructure that’s been built also includes an International Student Support Centre on campus that offers help with career planning, resume writing, immigration support, mental health awareness and academic writing, all of which help international students succeed in a community and finish a degree. Scholarships are available (based on eligibility), and funding can also be obtained from the country of origin.

“These students have made some very big life-changing decisions to move here and study at Mount Royal,” MacDonald notes. “We are known as a university that really cares about a student’s belonging, and this is one element of ensuring students feel like they belong by making them more a part of the community.”

What’s different about Mount Royal?

MacDonald and MacKichan agree that sense of belonging is the Mount Royal advantage. Other selling points include smaller class sizes, first-name relationships with professors — and location, location, location. Calgary’s proximity to the mountains and its size are popular with international students.

Recruiters also emphasize the chance to perform research and Mount Royal graduates’ readiness for grad school. These are advantages for domestic students as well.

MacKichan says, “Most university students are looking for an experience that will grow their world — enhance that global perspective for them.

“Imagine if you’re in a classroom and you have students from a variety of backgrounds. The conversation is going to be that much more rich, and the perspectives that much more diverse than if you were in a situation where everybody has come from the same background or perspective.”

MacDonald echoes this point and says many more high school students than before are starting at Mount Royal having already travelled abroad.

“More have had an international experience at the secondary level and they come in with expectations right at the beginning of the year. That’s really exciting. The global world is shrinking and they’re much more in it than before.”

A photo of Alice MacKichan

“If you don’t have any global or international experiences, are you actually well-educated enough to go out into the world to work and live in our current society?”

— Alice MacKichan
Director, Admissions and Recruitment Office

The world is at our doorstep

For those students who cannot or choose not to travel, the University is bringing the international experience to them. “That’s internationalization at home,” MacDonald says. “In any given week students might be communicating with friends halfway around the world. Calgary is now such a diverse cultural environment, and when you walk through our campus you see the diversity, that feeling that the world has come to us.

“It’s in the community and in the classroom. More of the dialogue is about what’s taking place around the world. That helps build international and intercultural competencies. Sofor those students who aren’t having an international experience, how can we give them a sense of internationalization here on campus — and that’s in the classroom.”

MacKichan believes that such exposure can awaken an international curiosity in all students “so that everybody learns more and experiences more, whether they’re even aware of that need or desire, which can then grow a desire for international travel, education and business.”

The global economy

By 2025, it is hoped that 20 per cent of Mount Royal’s graduating domestic students will have had an international experience. Both MacDonald and MacKichan are optimistic there’s enough student interest to reach the target.

But international field schools and exchanges are expensive, MacDonald says. Another key development this year in internationalization was securing funding that will provide financial assistance to each student who studies abroad. The University is providing this funding through International Mobility awards.

“In the past we’ve cobbled together grants and whatever we could find to support the students,” she says. “Now we can actually say that there’s financial support in place for students when they study abroad, which can cost a student anywhere between $2,000 and $15,000. We can also help students find additional money.

“Our own students, and our own country, need this international experience to work in a global economy,” MacDonald emphasizes.

MacKichan agrees. “International experience is an essential aspect of education in the world today. If you don’t have any global or international experiences, are you actually well-educated enough to go out into the world to work and live in our current society?”

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