Journey of an International Student (Part One): “Much Ado About Nothing”

This is a re-post from Redefining Traditional, a community aiming to equip student parents with the tools to navigate their various roles, build a community of support and belonging, as well as providing a space for productive dialogue amongst policy-makers to help reimagine higher education. If you’re interested in contributing to our online community, we encourage you to share your story as a student parent by filling out this form.

Shamim speaking to an audience.
Shamim Ahmed, Design Researcher

As an international student, I flew from a country which is almost 11000 kilometers far from Canada. When its 8am in Toronto, that’s 6pm in my home country, Bangladesh. I arrived in Toronto on a chilly morning of December 2016. I had previously seen snowfall in Geneva during my short trip to United Nation’s Human Rights Commission meeting back in 2012, but for my wife and daughter it was the first-time watching the snow fall. It was very exciting, but I remember we could not enjoy as much we would love to because we were occupied with so many thoughts at that time. We were concerned about adapting with a new culture and society in this new chapter moving of our lives.

An empty room with open suitcases lined up on two sides of the wall.
First day in Toronto, will always remember this day!

“Our Journey Had Advanced” 

It took us about 3 hours to complete immigration and then reach our first destination in Canada – 30 Charles Street West, University of Toronto Family Housing! I remember that day very clearly. We lost some of our luggage at the airport. Most of my clothes were in those bags. Fortunately, my wife and daughter had their possessions intact. I never found my lost luggage – even though I finally got reimbursed after 4 month, I could only manage to buy 2 winter jackets with that money. It was frustrating. I was supposed to start my PhD in September 2016, but due to a delayed VISA I had to start my studies in January 2017. I was allocated an apartment from December 2016 at the family housing and we decided to arrive early so that we could familiarize ourselves with the Canadian winter and settle down a bit before jumping into my PhD program.   

First few days were different. We were confused. Confused that the cars were moving into opposite lanes than we knew them to be, road signs seemed scary, knowing loonies and toonies was not easy either! Underground trains seemed simple though. I had been to United Kingdom many times for work and used to their very complicated 6 lane zonal metros. Therefore, TTC’s two straight line metros gave me some comfort finally. We started to meet people with smiling faces all around. Christmas was approaching, snowfall started feeling warm and Christmas lights in the city were making us happy. There were some events still left in the season organized by the Residence Office and we enjoyed them thoroughly. Google Maps seemed to be our best friend in these times! 

A mother and daughter standing next to a large well-lit christmas tree on a snowy, winter evening.
The lights and festivity around Christmas made us happy! 

“You Smile Upon your Friend To-day” 

The first one month in Toronto before starting my PhD was useful. It gave me the confidence and knowledge to start off the semester with a positive mind. By then I came to meet many Canadians who were friendly and offering to help with advice, directions and studies. When I look back at those days, I feel emotional. The first few months – although they were full of confusion and uncertainty – were what gave me the strength to learn and know about a new culture, society and neighbourhood. I realized it was important to reach out to friends, colleagues and neighbours when I needed it. I learned how most of the information was available online, and I just needed to dig more and find the best way to utilize them.  

Coming back to present time, the strength of community living felt stronger during the beginning of COVID-19. The Residence Office played a supportive role to aware family housing residents about social distancing and precautionary measures to keep healthy. They put hand sanitizers at the building entrance. All residents were advised to cover their faces with masks or appropriate covering. More than two people were not allowed in the elevators. There were posters with hygiene messages on every floor. We received emails with various messages about what to do to fight COVID-19 as a community. Other resources, such as: mental health assistance, financial assistance at the University were also shared.  

“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience” 

I remember there were very few people moving in and out of the building during the first few months of this pandemic. Friends were careful not to spread the virus by exposing themselves outside. However, during the beginning of the anti-black racism movement Family Housing residents joined hand in hand to protest brutal acts against people of colour around the world. There were many banners and posters on the windows of our neighbours showing solidarity. We also supported frontline workers by cheering for them at 7:30 pm every day for the first few months. The support and gratitude is still there. One of my friends gave birth to a beautiful baby boy during this time. We were excited, extended our greetings but avoided visiting them to make sure the baby remained healthy and didn’t get exposed to COVID-19.  

On the flip side of this many students lost their jobs and were feeling depressed due to this overwhelming uncertainty. Many could not make desired progress with their project or research and were worried about their studies being funded in the future. We tried to reach out to each other and help as much as possible by providing support and encouragement. It has not been very easy. Many students are still tense in these uncertain times and are in need of help. We try to share resources for all students, including student parents through the Redefining Traditional initiative. There are many resources available in our website and Facebook pages and I welcome you to visit our pages.  

An outside view of Toronto and the CN Tower covered with snow from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
Looking outside from Dalla Lana School of Public Health for the first time.

Confused, but Hopeful

I believe the most important thing is to share our feelings and reaching out to each other in difficult times. It is important to know everyone is going through some challenges and we need to be empathetic and compassionate as a community. I will try to share my stories, the journey of an international student, at least once a month from now on. I will share the transition I have been through – and trust me, it has not been easy. I still face many challenges. On the brighter side, I know the supports I have from my community and neighbours are bigger than the difficulties. I know I can face them with all of your support, and you should know I will be there to support you as well.  

I feel hopeful when my daughter graduates and move to a new class every year with hope and excitement. I believe together we can walk towards our dreams, and someday we will those dreams will become reality.  

Talk to you soon again!

Check out Part 2 of Shamim’s story here

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