Every year, MacEwan welcomes over 1,000 international students to our campus. For some, the biggest challenges aren’t academic, but cultural – being immersed in a different language, getting used to Canadian customs and navigating the university’s processes and systems.
But thanks to a new program developed by MacEwan International, a group of staff at the university are now better equipped to identify with and support international students.
The Staff Intercultural Awareness Training and Study Tour launched this year, culminating in an immersive trip to South Korea. The program also included intercultural sensitivity workshops; intensive coursework in Korean history, culture and language in preparation for the trip; and the opportunity for participants to job-shadow at Dankook University, a long-time MacEwan International partner in South Korea. One of the goals of the program was to give the participants an experience that reflected that of international students in an effort to help them understand the challenges those students face in Canada.
According to MacEwan International’s Erin Wight and Kimberley Howard, who led the program, the criteria for participants was simple but specific. “Their job has to involve regular interaction with international students, and they had to have never had a long-term immersive experience in Asia.”
Among the group were university advisors, a librarian, a senior administrator and several staff from the Office of the University Registrar (OUR) and School of Continuing Education who handle processes like admissions, enrolment, transcript evaluations and transfer credit.
Fish out of water
Lauren Melnyk, a program advisor in the Faculty of Health and Community Studies, was among the participants. “I had never been on an immersive cultural experience,” she says. “When I travel, it’s always to all-inclusives. So I was interested to learn how our international students feel when they are here – like a fish out of water, not fully knowing what to expect.”
That feeling of being a fish out of water was exactly what the program organizers were going for. While in Korea, they had the group perform challenges that involved completing an everyday task, but with no guidance or language assistance. Though the challenges sounded simple, performing them in an unfamiliar culture made them difficult – a feeling international students often experience.
“One of the tasks was ordering lunch in the university cafeteria – something that would be so simple in Canada, but was completely overwhelming in Korea.” says Lauren. “Everybody was going to a machine and selecting their food, but none of us knew what we were ordering and how we were supposed to pick up our food.”
Program participant Warran Brager, who works in the OUR, relied on the kindness of a stranger in the cafeteria. “I completely screwed it up and was sitting there kind of scratching my head when a Korean student took pity on me and offered to help,” he says. “Had he not offered, I probably wouldn’t have approached anyone for help because I wouldn’t know if they’d be able to understand me, and I wouldn’t want them to feel bad if they couldn’t.”
Bringing the lessons home
For Warran, the experience directly reflects something he sees at work on a regular basis. “We have a system called QLESS outside the OUR to help manage lineups. It’s supposed to make the process easier for people, but sometimes it can be confusing. I now go out of my way to look for people who look uncertain or overwhelmed, and offer to help. I recognize confusion now because I’ve been there myself.”
Lauren believes that the experience will not only have a positive effect on her ability to relate to international students, but also help her empathize with all new students. “Previously, when I was working with new students, I’d be using lots of acronyms, and I just kind of assumed that they would know what that meant, or would let me know if they didn’t. But I’ve learned not to make assumptions anymore.”
“It's important to realize that we have as much to learn as we have to teach.”
“Since this study tour, I have started reflecting on how I can simplify complex processes and policies for students who are completely new to the university experience,” says Lauren. “I now know what it feels like to be completely lost and confused in a new environment, and I want my new students to not be so overwhelmed as they start their academic journey.”
Kimberley is pleased with the way the trip challenged and benefitted the participants. “Our team came away with some really great perspectives,” she says. “We tend to think that the way we do things must be the right way or the best way, so it’s really eye-opening to see that others are doing things differently but still logically and effectively – often more effectively than we are.”
That change in perspective is especially powerful in an educational institution, says Kimberley. “I think it’s humbling but very important to realize that we have as much to learn as we have to teach.”