Project Insights from ‘Celebrating International Students: Being Brave Away from Home’

Written by Robin Martin, Serena Tran & Yuwei Jiang, Design Research Assistants for the Celebrating International Students Project

Illustrations by Nikhil Pawar & Marielle Dilla – Digital Storytellers

The international student experience at the University of Toronto (U of T) is anything but homogenous. The Celebrating International Students project began during the  2019-2020 Design Thinking Experience Program (DTEP), and quickly took off after recognizing just how complex, and at times similar, the challenges of being an international student truly is. Over the last year and a half our research teams have delved into our archive of more than 600 interviews to get a broadened sense of the international student experience from before and during pandemic. We were also grateful to have interviewed several U of T staff in October to round out the data even further. 

In this blog post, we will be sharing the main insights we have uncovered after interviewing and carefully analyzing our existing data, as well as our team members’ personal reflections from this project. We also share Building Bravery Design Principles to empower one another in celebrating international students at U of T, and a link to our report.

Braving the Unknown 

A globe in the centre surrounded by an outer circle outlined with three other smaller circles containing a light bubble in the clouds, a textbox, and a web of smaller bubbles

Moving to a new country comes with a myriad of new challenges, much of which is overcome through the valiant effort of international students themselves. Through this project, we found that international students brave the unfamiliar, challenging themselves to be resilient. This played out in three distinct ways:   

1. Daring Dreams & Discoveries:  

Icon of a hot air balloon floating through the clouds. There's a star in the centre, representing bravery.

New beginnings prompt excitement but also challenges international students must face and adapt to along the way. Students explained that newness sometimes transformed into feelings of loneliness and homesickness. On top of that, unfamiliarity with the education system and the overwhelming amount of information proved difficult as they adjusted to their new environment. 

“I always go back to when I was in my first week of UofT; you were excited about a new country and new program and really vibrant community. But you also felt loneliness for a while.”  

2. Communicating Courageously 

Icon of two individuals having a conversation, with a lightbulb in the centre.

Learning and communicating in an unfamiliar language for many was more challenging than they expected. International students choose UofT for its quality of education, but some felt unsure of communicating and working in advanced academic settings. Moreover, cultural differences make it even more difficult for them to be understood by their peers, instructors, and staff.  

“I don’t know how to say that. Maybe because my language. I’m quiet. I’m not confident with my expression, because I always cannot talk English fluently.” 

3. Making Bold Connections 

Three circles connected with lines containing a profile, with textboxes extending each circle

Being in a new culture and community can make building friendships difficult for international students. They reported occasional difficulties in making friends outside of peers of their own culture. Their sense of lack of belonging and related struggles (e.g., financial burdens, distance from home, and family expectations) can create additional strains on international students, including relationships with their families.  

“I participated when I first came here in a program called Step Up – it’s for international students […] I definitely met so many of my friends that I know now from that program.” 

Along with these core themes, we also highlight how despite isolation, students created new communities and innovative ways of learning throughout the pandemic. This can be explored further in the ‘Exceptional Times’ portion of the report, which is linked at the end of this post.

Stories Inspiring Our Researchers   

Through this work we are honoured to hear the stories international students have entrusted with us as design researchers, but as students, we felt deeply touched on how varying the student experience can be. Provided are some personal takeaways and moments that stood out to us as Design Research Assistants in this project.  

A photo of Serena, smiling to the camera and standing infront of a staircase

Serena: As a domestic student, this project allowed me to better understand the international student experience and really see how resilient and brave they are. One story that struck me was how visa delays tumbled into missing opportunities to integrate into the education system putting them in a difficult position to catch up. Like a domino effect, missing one thing quickly compounded and resulted to an abundance of negative feelings like stress, confusion, isolation, and doubt with themselves. Despite these challenges, the bravery of this student still shone through as they remained resilient and tried their best to face the newness and challenges presented to them. This story struck me because it is the reality that may not often be highlighted or captured in things like school newsletters, movies, etc. However, this should be brought to the forefront. No matter how small or big the challenges faced, international students should be celebrated as it requires great resiliency and bravery to even take the first step. ​ 

Yuwei wearing glasses, a blue shirt, and white cardigan - smiling to the camera.

Yuwei: Being an international student myself, I can relate to many frustrations and difficulties illustrated by our participants. When they mentioned the nerves to speak up in class, it reminded me of those classes where I had plenty of ideas but would not raise my hand. When they mentioned the change of relationship with their families, it reminded me of the summers when I had to decide between taking an internship, which is sensibly crucial for my career, and visiting my family, which is emotionally needed. Sometimes, it is hard to think positively when adapting to an unfamiliar environment in the university, which is already difficult, and compounded with these extra burdens, such as language barriers and disconnection with families. Therefore, it becomes important for us to be reminded of our bravery, that taking the courage to venture into a new country is already an achievement no matter what our scores are. Talking with our staff at the university, I find it very encouraging to see that the school cares about our feelings, exhibits empathy to our situations, and takes the initiative to make our experiences better. They also remind me of the diversity within our international student bodies. We come from a variety of backgrounds, socio-economically, culturally, geographically, etc. Our passports do not define our experiences. Therefore, it is crucial to recognize the broad spectrum of international students and take a wider lens into their experiences. 

Stories Inspiring Change: Building Bravery Design Principles  

A textbox, shelf of books, side profile with a graduation cap, a globe with a cap, an open book, and a house with a heart all pointing towards a profile centered in the middle

After identifying key elements that make up the international student experience, and reflecting on our own positionality, we’ve co-designed ways students, staff, and the community of U of T can help support international students in overcoming the dynamic challenges they face throughout their journey. Below is a list of our Building Bravery Design Principles that are inspired by our student-driven research. In our report, we contextualize and provide examples for how you can celebrate international students in your context.  

  • Celebrating the Courage for Newness: Validate international students’ courage to affirm the incredible accomplishments they are making.  
  • Welcome Braving the Unfamiliar: To make it easier to navigate the unknown governmental, educational, cultural, and social systems, employ nontechnical terminology when providing written and/or verbal instructions.  
  • Encourage Speaking Up: Be patient and encouraging when students are facing difficulty in expressing themselves or explaining an issue, as self-advocating can feel intimidating when facing uncertainties.  
  • Leaving the Nest: The international student experience can impact family and friends as much as themselves, therefore validating students in their relationship-building can help foster meaningful connections.  
  • Honour Compounded Concerns: The challenges of being an international student can be compounding from geographical distance and cultural differences. Universities can build cultural diversity and training by incorporating it into various programming.  
  • Not a Monolith: Recognizing that each international student brings a different lived experience – cultural, social and familial – is crucial to assisting their navigation of their life at U of T.

To learn more about the insights from this project and ways you can help celebrate international students, check out our final report by clicking the button below.  

0 comments on “Project Insights from ‘Celebrating International Students: Being Brave Away from Home’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *