Team Reflections: International Students: First 48 Hours in Canada

Group of the Innovation Hub Team and Cohort of Students

Our Design Research Team for the International Students: First 48 Hours in Canada project reflect on their experience working with eight international students as they travel to Canada to study at U of T to create an impactful documentary and report of findings. The team shares how much empathy they felt for the students hearing their stories throughout the process, and expresses appreciation for Cal Campos, an incredible filmmaker who worked with us over the last year to produce the documentary.   

Written by the Innovation Hub International Students First 48 Hours in Canada Design Research Team

In 2023-24, we partnered with the Office of the Associate Vice-Provost, International Student Experience and Centre for International Experience to explore the experiences of international students coming to study in Canada for the first time, with an emphasis on their first 48 hours after arrival. The goal of the project was to follow several students on their journey through video logs and Zoom interviews before and after their arrival. We are excited to share that the International Students: First 48 Hours in Canada documentary short will premiere in September, 2024 and we could not be more thrilled to share with our community. Check out the trailer for the documentary.

Eight International Students – Willing to Film their Journey to Canada

In late summer 2023, we initiated a widespread call for incoming international students who would be willing to document their experiences preparing, travelling, and arriving in Canada to study on video. We were overwhelmed by student interest – we received applications from hundreds of interested students. After interacting with many of our applicants, we selected our eight participants:

Kavan headshot

Kavan Arora


University of Toronto Scarborough, Bachelor of Business Administration

Cecil headshot

Cecil Chikezie


Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, PhD Biomedical Engineering

Obinna  headshot

Obinna Ezeani


Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Master of Science, Health Informatica

Josefa headshot

Jo Antonia Sepulveda Guzman


Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, Bachelor of Kinesiology

Onu headshot

Onu Okoli

South Africa

John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape & Design, Honours Bachelor of Arts, Architectural Studies

Maham headshot

Maham Zehra Rizvi


University of Toronto Mississauga, Bachelor of Science, Forensic Science

Pahul headshot

Pahul Sond


Faculty of Law, Master of Laws

Renzo headshot

Renzo Ugarte Basurco


Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, Bachelor of Applied Science

We are so grateful to each of these students who willingly documented their journeys. Through the project, we learned about the excitement and challenges it takes to adjust to life in Canada, and the resilience required on the journey.

Finding an Empathetic Filmmaker

We interviewed several filmmakers for this project, but when we met Cal Campos, we knew they were the right person to produce and direct the documentary.  Watching their previous work, we saw how committed they were to honest storytelling and sharing stories of diverse marginalized communities like international students, 2SLGBTQIA+ and BIPOC people. We were also inspired to meet them, their fun and enthusiastic energy, alongside their vulnerability as a non-binary person of colour. Cal fostered a genuinely supportive, empathetic, and collaborative environment with the participants and the team throughout the process.  We are thankful to Cal for their work capturing and weaving together all the moments of each student’s journey in such a beautiful way. 

Building Connections & Empathy  

Every one of the eight international students had a fascinating story, and we were delighted to closely follow their journey from their home country to U of T. Early last fall as content started to roll in, we built relationships with our participants as we watched their video diaries, read their journals, and spoke to them both before leaving home and after their arrival. They were so brave as they shared their range of emotions from fear to struggles, unexpected events, and, most importantly, their excitement and joy. Seeing their vulnerability, we empathized with their stories, our own worldviews were expanded, and our biases challenged.  Design Research Team Lead Hannah reflected on how different each international student’s journey truly is:

Group at the Terrence Donnelly Centre Bamboo Garden.

Hannah: As a domestic student, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about who international students are and why they choose to study abroad. From watching their experiences, I understood how unique each person’s story really is, and I felt empathy.

Throughout the footage and our conversations with these international students, we saw the nuances of each student’s journey through the little details – questions, challenges, and unexpected things that happened along the way. Design Research team member Melissa, an international student herself, explained how she was impacted by the participatory aspect of this project:

Melissa: The First 48 Hours project is special because of how deeply we interacted with the participants and how frequently we saw them. It’s not like we collected the data from their stories and left them there; instead, we created deeper connections with them and got to know how their lives went during the entire academic year.

Group of students at the anthropology building

Listening to stories goes beyond just data collection in our work. We felt happy to have contributed to a project that brought people together to build deeper connections.

In September, a few weeks into the school year when all the students were getting settled into their new routine, we invited them to the Innovation Hub to meet each other. It was so powerful to see how eight people, each starting at U of T from a different country, across different continents could so easily bond over the smallest details of their journeys coming to Canada. As part of this day, we had the opportunity to show them a little bit of Toronto! It was really a wonderful experience, and a day we won’t forget.

Sharing our Findings & Viewing the Documentary for the First Time

students holding U of T sweaters

This past March, we finalized a report of findings from the project and hosted a first viewing of the International Students: First 48 Hours documentary with the eight international students, our partners from the VP International and the international student centres across all three campuses. The viewing was a roller coaster of emotions as everyone laughed at the funny parts and cried at the more emotional parts. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room as we saw the work come to life. We also had a chance to present our report: International Students: First 48 Hours in Canada. The opportunity to see the reactions of the community made us feel grateful and excited that our work resonated with others. Design research team members Grace and Will reflect on how it felt to see the documentary for the first time:

Will: The documentary brought the living data in front of the community and partners. Our partners were able to live in the moment, see what students have been through, ride along with their emotions, and ask follow-up questions.

Grace: Watching the vlogs and the documentary come together deeply resonated with me. The use of many mediums to both document and present our participants’ experiences was incredibly impactful. I couldn’t help but share the feelings our participants had as they embarked on and recorded their journeys. I cried, laughed, and grinned right alongside them!

Innovation Hub Team presenting the vision.

Sitting down and admiring the beauty of the documentary, we were immersed in the stories of each of the students. Seeing simple moments such as a student exploring a grocery store for the first time, setting up their bank account, arriving at the airport, were all experiences that bought us back to when we first started our U of T adventure. Design Researcher June, another international student, reflected on how stories bring people together:

June: Stories are our most powerful tool to connect and bridge gaps between people. By sharing these stories, we hope to support fellow international students to ease the fears of the unknown, affirming that they are not alone in their journey: a welcoming community is ready to celebrate their unique stories and experiences.

We were inspired by the stories international students told us. Their vulnerability and honesty about their experiences coming to and settling into Canada painted a hopeful narrative of resilience and excitement.  


Hannah smiling outdoors.

Hannah Katherine, Design Research Team Lead, Honours Bachelor of Arts, Literature and Critical Theory, Creative Expressions in Society, & History

Melissa  headshot

Melissa Cui, Design Researcher, Bachelor of Science, Economics & Psychology

June  headshot

June Huang, Design Researcher, Master of Information, User Experience Design

Grace headshot

Grace Tsaousidis, Design Researcher, Honours Bachelor of Arts, Anthropology, Political Science, & Urban Studies

Will  headshot

William Wu, Design Researcher, Bachelor of Commerce, Data Science & Management

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