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Struggles with isolation for some international students at UPEI

Siyuan Gao, international representative of UPEI’s student union, has been working to help encourage international students to become more involved in the campus community.
Siyuan Gao, international representative of UPEI’s student union, has been working to help encourage international students to become more involved in the campus community. - Stu Neatby

Student leader says gaps exist between international student needs and accessible support

Xi Du
Special to The Guardian



CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - Lei Pan, a second-year business student at the University of Prince Edward Island was surprised at how difficult her new life became after moving to P.E.I.

“I never thought homesickness would happen to me, because I am very independent. But when it came, I was so depressed,” Pan said. “In the first year, I felt isolated. I don’t know how to ask for help.”

With the number of international students at Canadian campuses on a steady rise, there’s a growing demand for academic, social and language support.

In response, UPEI has invested in on-campus services for students coming from other countries. Airport pickups upon arrival, orientation sessions, English academic preparation (EAP) and ongoing social events aimed specifically at international students are now common.

Despite these efforts, students are still experiencing difficulties.

Siyuan Gao, a fourth-year business student at UPEI, is the president of the UPEI Chinese Society. Last fall, she ran in the UPEI student union (UPEISU) elections, becoming the first ever Chinese student to serve as the union’s international representative.

“I didn't expect any of those,” Gao said. While she personally has benefited from her time at the university, she understands why some of her classmates find it hard living and studying away from their friends and family.

When she was 14-years-old, Gao attended an international baccalaureate school with courses taught in English, Spanish and French. Being the first and only Chinese student in school, she was lonely.

“I seriously preferred to go to class when there was a break, because I had no friends to talk [to]. In class there’s at least a professor talking,” Gao said.

Due to this experience Gao can understand how international students at UPEI struggle with isolation.

“There will be a language barrier between the UPEISU and the Chinese community, because I find most of us are quite introverted at the beginning. We are afraid to speak out aloud in English. That's like our main issue,” Gao said.

In these cases, it is difficult for the students to talk with the UPEISU about their problems. They might prefer to stay in their small community because of cultural differences, language barriers, or an introverted personality.

Through her work with the Chinese Society, Gao is trying to bridge this gap by helping Chinese students settle in and get familiar with the environment. They hold lectures, organize job fairs and gather students together to celebrate Chinese festivals.

Gao said the UPEISU has found reaching the international community challenging.

“They try their best. There are really few things they can do. There’s a lack of communication,” she said.

Gao said the union has increased funding for international student activities. They are planning to increase the number of elected international representatives next year from one to two positions. They have organized culturally diverse activities, such as a global village and Chinese festival dinners.

“Sometimes students complain because they don't know those kinds of things exist,” Gao said.

She believes having more representatives on-staff at UPEI who speak different languages and understand the issues facing international students would help bridge the gap between students’ needs and accessible support.

“It’s definitely possible. It just takes some time to do it,” Gao said.

Jerry Wang, director of recruitment at UPEI, says the university has made significant investments in support services for international students. Some, however, do not take advantages of these services.
Jerry Wang, director of recruitment at UPEI, says the university has made significant investments in support services for international students. Some, however, do not take advantages of these services.

Jerry Wang, director of recruitment at UPEI, says the university is already providing comprehensive support to international students.

“We would want to provide – from the beginning to the end – a whole system of support, but every step of the system means a lot of work,” he said.

“We are being proactive. There are services and people in place to help students.”

Wang says the university promotes these things through emails, social media and other channels. But he acknowledges students need to take the first step.

“The frustrating part is we often tell students we have these services, we have these workshops, but some of them just don't come,” he said.

Gao says those activities will pay off for students who take advantage of them.

“University life has transformed me to be more like a positive and consistent student. All those activities and all the people I met have transformed me in a positive way,” Gao said.

“I really like the feeling. I feel pretty satisfied. I know what I am doing, and I know all those things I’m doing are beneficial.”

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