At UBC, initiatives to support the incoming Syrian refugees have included different fundraising activities and students volunteering their time and skills. But how can UBC, as an institution, better support the incoming students? Here's what I have learned from other international students on the Vancouver campus:
International students have said that life starts to get better when they are able to make friends. Making friends is not easy for international students at UBC due to barriers such as cultural differences, language and limited social interaction on campus. UBC can take the initiative to help these students make friends by assigning them buddies in their departments or within the campus community. The buddy would be a person who is dedicated, patient, and will allow the students to construct their questions in a language they are struggling with (English or French). A person who will show them around and tell them the names of different food — someone they can be comfortable around.
Also, International House and other UBC departments that deal with international students should go beyond information dissemination to show genuine concern for these students. The students are already traumatized by their life circumstances and will be thankful to be saved from the trauma of information deluge. Rather than pushing information at them, UBC departments should be proactive to call or email these students to see how they are faring and settling in.
The institution should also recognize that some students are uncomfortable making inquiries in person due to the barriers stated above. For this reason, UBC and International House could establish virtual consulting for the students. An international student I interviewed for a class project noted that he would use virtual help, but will not visit UBC offices to get in-person help. The student related his disappointment with International House when, upon summoning courage to call and ask a question, he was asked to visit the office in person to receive an audience. He recalled being frustrated and giving up on the information needed at his own detriment. It is unfair to force these students into difficult and uncomfortable situations because we are not willing to leave their comfort zones.
To solve the problem of finance often encountered by international students, UBC could set aside jobs for the incoming Syrian refugee students until such a time that they are conversant with the workings of their new environment and are confident to venture off on their own in search of other jobs. This is very crucial because these students have no previous Canadian work experience and thus could be disadvantaged in the competitive Vancouver job market.
Finally, UBC must avoid the trap of only focusing on the incoming Syrian students' academic lives, thereby overlooking their everyday struggles as individuals. It is noteworthy that the academic and the everyday lives of these students intersect and inform one another such that the students cannot be successful in one aspect if the other is not settled satisfactorily.
Millicent Mabi is in her second year of the PhD program in the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies.