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Study desination Canada: How to beat culture shock blues

“When I saw Canada for the first time, from the window of the plane, I thought to myself – I’m finally here, ready to open a new chapter in my life,” recalls BBA Marketing student, Farrukh Asif Khan.

Originally from Hyderabad, India, Farrukh is now in her second year of studies at Canada’s Algoma University in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. Although she travelled extensively with her family in the past, she says when she first arrived in Canada, she still had no idea what to expect.

“I remember being a little nervous,” she says. “Butterflies in my stomach. I wasn’t sure how I would manage living on my own, how I would cope in the winter, or most importantly, with the food. I am a Muslim, and I was worried there wouldn’t be halal meat in Canada – a major concern, as I absolutely love meat and need to have it at least once a week! I didn’t even think that I would really ‘enjoy’ or ‘have fun’ – just that I would go to classes in the day, then at night finish my assignments and sleep.”

For many international students, the decision to study abroad is a difficult one to make – with the final move being full of uncertainties and “what ifs”, new challenges, and above all, lots of surprises. Although some students are ready to ‘take things as they come’ right from the start, for others, the first year can be difficult – with various levels of homesickness or culture shock playing a role.

Luckily for students like Farrukh, many Canadian universities are more than prepared to help international newcomers settle in and feel welcome, offering specialized programs and support systems, right from day one!

At Algoma, besides having access to year-round services including an international student advisor and multicultural students association, first year students are also given the option of participating in a special “summer introduction” program. This two-week program is offered for free – with students covering only basic homestay and OHIP (health insurance) costs. During this time, the students stay with carefully selected Canadian host families, engage in community volunteer work, attend English classes, explore the area, and even go on a short camping trip.

“This gives students the chance to become familiar with the community, make new friends, and adjust to the time difference, all before classes start,” explains Joanne Elvy, Director for International Student Outreach at Algoma. “By the time September first comes about, and students are able to shift into university’s residences, they’re ready to join in on the first week (or “Frosh”) activities – along with all the new friends they’ve already made!”

Farrukh agrees that the school’s orientation events really helped her to start off on the right foot, and acted as the perfect introduction to what she now calls Algoma’s “close knit community” – something she has come to truly cherish during her time at the school.

“There’s always someone looking out for you,” she explains. “At any time of the day or night. There’s always someone you can approach, be it your friends, professors, locals around town, etc.”

Even during school holidays, such as Thanksgiving (which Farrukh’s own family has never observed), she says she was touched to be invited, along with other international students, to the university President’s house for a home-cooked dinner. That evening, she says, was “one of the great and memorable moments of my life”.

“Everyone here is so helpful, supportive and caring that it actually feels like I am ‘home away from home’. I am proud to be a part of the Algoma family.”

For other students, however, actually being away from home and living in a new culture for the first time can be a bit more challenging. Take first year Algoma student, Sima Marin’s experience for example. Hailing from Thailand (though originally of Cambodian descent), Sima says it took her a while to get used to the new way of life – specifically, doing her own grocery shopping, laundry, cooking, and daily routine without the presence and constant support of her loving family.

“At times,” she says, “you realize that even a very very small thing, which you thought was not important, would suddenly seem a thousand times more valuable than you initially thought.”

Other major challenges Sima encountered as part of her new Canadian student life involved overcoming specific language and social barriers. Although she quickly found solutions to help her adjust in class – using a tape recorder during lectures, for example, so that she could re-listen to them later on, and make sure she understood what professors were saying – she still finds it difficult to speak her mind; something strongly encouraged (even expected) at Canadian universities.

“For many Asian people, we think that asking other people for help a lot means we are interrupting them,” Sima explains. “So when I first came here, I hesitated to ask people for help.” Although Sima says she still struggles with this, the fact that everyone is so helpful and friendly in Canada has encouraged her to express her thoughts, and she says she is now much more comfortable speaking in new environments, and asking for help when she needs it.

According to Joanne Elvy, there are a number of things which students – and families – can do in order to help alleviate some of the pangs of homesickness, and/or challenges of culture shock.

This includes bringing small items from home (pictures for decorating dorm rooms, any special food items or favourite cooking ingredients, etc), while at the same time avoiding spending too much time focusing on life “back there”.

“Try to avoid getting into too much Skype and “chatting” with friends and family back in your home country,” she urges. “It’s addictive, of course, but students who do that often end up spending more time back “home” than actually engaging with folks on campus. Instead, parents should consider setting a specific time for students to call, and (although it’s hard), they should remember how important it is for their children to adjust to the new life in Canada – new ways of studying, the classroom experience, new friends, new responsibilities, etc. “Communicating too much” only creates a longing to be with familiar people in familiar spaces, rather than to experience new things.”

Instead, Joanne Elvy suggests that students try to get involved with events happening in their new surroundings – joining a university club or volunteering in the larger community.

And finally, the good news for students like Farrukh (ie, those with special dietary requirements):
Many Canadian universities, like Algoma, now offer a wide range of meal options – including vegetarian and/or vegan options, low sodium or gluten-free choices, and even – to Farrukh’s delight – halal meat.

Learn more To find out more about applying for Canadian universities as an international student and for more information on your academic career in Canada, visit www.canada123.org

• ARWEN KIDD currently serves as Communications Director for the Canadian University Application Centre and its parent organization, Higher-Edge. A Canadian university graduate herself, Arwen has spent most of the past five years working and travelling overseas. Among her credits are various documentary film and photo journalism projects in Eastern Europe, Australia and West Africa. Arwen is currently based in Liberia.

Posted: Aug 31, 2011

May 2020

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