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Maximizing your Canadian experience

Enrique Chacon is an International Student Advisor at the University of Windsor, Ontario.

Along with helping students on issues such as immigration, work permits, academic program referral and documentation renewal, Chacon says he typically acts as a “first stop” for international students who have questions about studying, working, and living in Canada. Particularly at Windsor – a university that has one of Canada’s largest international student concentrations (as well as the largest number of students from South Asia specifically) – this type of service really makes a big difference for students wanting to get the most out of their Canadian university experiences.

According to Chacon, every university, as well as most colleges in Canada, have at least one International Student Advisor there to help students from before their arrival to Canada, right through to graduation – and in some cases, even beyond. It is a profession close to his own heart, as 15 years ago, Chacon was a newly arrived international student himself.

Here, he offers some pieces of advice for others who may be looking to maximize their own Canadian university experiences – with particular emphasis for those who may be looking to kick-start their own careers in Canada, just as he did more than a decade ago.
Originally from Colombia, Chacon came to Canada intent on pursuing a Master’s of International and Intercultural Education at the University of Alberta. Before he started classes for his degree, Chacon says he concentrated on improving his English – something he encourages all international students to do.

“That’s number one on the list – to improve your English,” he says. Bilingual (and particularly multilingual) skills make students particularly attractive to future employers, both Canadian as well as international. And in Canada specifically, if you don’t have sufficient working English, you simply won’t be able to compete. Although Chacon took formal ESL and TOEFL courses himself, he also believes strongly in the value of informal practice – and in just getting out and meeting new people to practice your English with.
“One of the best things you can do is to meet people from other cultures, get to know people,” he adds. “Really experience life in Canada, and participate in events.”

Besides language skills, Chacon says one of the other major challenges some international students find is in getting out and exploring their surroundings. Particularly useful if trying to find jobs later on, a general awareness for the greater communities is something he says many international students end up lacking – sometimes even after they’ve been living in Canada for a number of years.

Some international students get so involved in their programs, Chacon explains, that they never really get out of their dorm rooms or off campus.

“It’s good that they’re concentrating on their studies, but not if they miss out on everything else. So I would say to them to ‘expand your horizons. Get to know the environment – the city, as well as the campus. It will help you in the long run, especially when you’re trying to go out and apply for jobs later on.’”

In general, Chacon says many Canadian employers are eager to hire international students and/or graduates, as, according to him, they have a strong overall reputation for being hardworking, bright individuals. But these same employers, he cautions, also want to see that the students understand and fit in well with the Canadian culture and work environment – so the more working or volunteering experience you have, the better off you will be.

“Come with an open mind. One of the greatest (and simplest) reference resources of all is your own professors.”

“Get yourself known to one of your professors,” says Chacon. “I don’t just mean show up and say ‘sign my letter’ when you need (a reference). Be a good student and participate in class, obviously, but also speak with the professors individually, visit them during their office hours.”

Overall, Chacon says the best way to improve your chances for employment in Canada after graduation – besides studying hard! – is getting out and experiencing the country. Whether that be through the help of university-organized events for international students, through joining campus clubs or societies, or by simply exploring the communities around you, this extra perspective and ‘Canadian understanding’ will be sure to help you show off for new employers.
“You should realize that coming to Canada could be a great experience, but you need to make sure you come with an open mind,” he says. “Realize the culture is different – which is a good thing! – and be ready to take on a lot of challenges. If you do these things, and keep that open mind, then you can have an amazing experience, and it really can lead to great opportunities.”
– ARWEN KIDD

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 photojournalism projects in Eastern Europe, Australia and West Africa. Arwen is currently based in New Delhi, India.

Posted: Dec 4, 2010

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