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December 18, 2019 1:10 PM

Serving a global community: Focus on Internationalization

International student enrolment at Conestoga’s network of campuses has grown exponentially in recent years, increasing from just over 1,000 in 2011-12 to more than 7,000 in 2018-19, with additional increases projected for the upcoming academic year. We asked Chris Buuck, Conestoga’s associate vice president of Academic Administration & International Education, to discuss the role of internationalization in supporting the college’s mission and strategic goals, and how Conestoga has become a destination of choice for students from around the world.

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The total enrolment growth resulting from the inclusion of a large contingent of international students has provided opportunities to develop additional and more specialized programming clusters to mirror the needs of our changing economy.

It’s often referred to as the grey tsunami, the demographic shift that will see the continued rise of the senior population in Canada and other developed countries as the baby boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) reach retirement. Coupled with declining birth rates and longer life expectancies, the growing population of seniors will have a profound impact on Canada’s social and economic well-being.

In 2016, seniors (those aged 65 and over) outnumbered children (aged 14 and under) for the first time in Canada’s history. By 2036, seniors could account for 25 per cent of the country’s total population.

Maintaining a thriving economy and delivering the services required to support all of Canada’s citizens will require a robust workforce that cannot be drawn from the domestic population alone. That’s why Canada has an ambitious immigration agenda, with plans to admit more than 1 million new permanent residents in the years 2019 through 2021.

As Chris Buuck explains, Conestoga’s international students are an important part of that immigration stream, as most of them are planning to settle in Canada following the completion of their studies.

“Preparing international students for success is part of nation-building and a key piece in Canada’s future growth,” Buuck points out.

Conestoga’s international students are drawn from more than 80 countries. While the largest group are drawn from India, the college also attracts significant student populations from South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Brazil. Efforts to engage prospective students from additional countries are ongoing.

Supporting student success

Students who travel across the globe, leaving family and homeland far behind in their pursuit of successful futures, face a daunting set of challenges as they make the transition to life and study in Canada.

At Conestoga, support for such students begins long before they arrive on campus, starting from the moment they receive admission to the college.

“Students are eager to connect with others who are already at Conestoga. It’s integral to their successful transition,” said Buuck.

International student ambassadors provide pre-arrival communications and support, engaging new students through webinars, videos and messaging, providing opportunities for them to build connections with the college and with each other.

A new Airport Welcome program to be introduced this fall includes everything from signage welcoming students and a free phone call home, to connecting students with ground transportation and providing support as they navigate their way to housing. Current students will participate as part of the welcome team.

Proactively engaging new students, anticipating and addressing their needs, is an essential component of the transition process.

“It’s their first impression of Canada. It’s important that it’s welcoming and that students have a sense of belonging right from the beginning,” said Buuck.

A cross-college team, with representatives from the Registrar’s Office, Student Engagement, the Recreation Centre and Conestoga Students Inc. as well as International Education, work in tandem to deliver a comprehensive orientation and start-up experience to help all new students transition and put them on the path towards success. Additional orientation activities address the specialized needs of students new to Canada.

“I have the opportunity to meet many of the new students at orientation, and I’m blown over by their enthusiasm,” Buuck said. “They’re so excited to be here.”

“Many of our upper-level international students participate and share their experiences with the newcomers,” she continued. “What I hear them speak of over and over is the quality of their education here and the overwhelming kindness and support they receive from their professors.”

A comprehensive network of academic and social support services provides assistance to all students throughout their studies and beyond. The International Education office even provides support for employers as they navigate the additional requirements involved with hiring international students.

With so much emphasis on supporting international students in their efforts to transition to Canada and succeed in their studies, it’s not surprising to learn that success rates are very high. The graduation rate for Conestoga’s international students in 2017-18 was more than 83 per cent - that far exceeds the overall graduation rate across Ontario colleges (66 per cent). Almost 85 per cent of Conestoga’s international graduates obtained employment within six months of graduation.

Enriching classrooms and communities

Providing opportunities for international students to learn, succeed and start new lives in Canada is integral to Conestoga’s commitment to developing new talent to serve workforce needs. But Buuck points out that there are many additional benefits as well.

The total enrolment growth resulting from the inclusion of a large contingent of international students has provided opportunities to develop additional and more specialized programming clusters that mirror the needs of our changing economy. As a result, all students have more program choices.

In addition, many international students bring a great deal of education and professional experience with them - approximately half have completed at least one undergraduate degree. Their knowledge and prior experience enrich the classroom experience for students and faculty alike.

And perhaps the greatest benefit of all is the experience all students gain from learning together in a diverse and multicultural environment.

“The internationalization of our classrooms provides very important learning opportunities,” Buuck said. “Our students will graduate into an economy and a work environment that are very multicultural and diverse. Having the opportunity to learn and work across diverse teams during their studies is important preparation for what they will encounter in the workforce.”

A local student who studied in a class of otherwise exclusively international students sums it up best:

“Being the only domestic student in an international student class was one of the best experiences of my life. It taught me a newfound respect for cultural differences and helped me further develop skills that I would never have developed in a regular class setting. Being able to help my peers adjust to Canadian living was a reward in itself. It was a unique experience and one that I will never forget.”

This article originally appeared in the fall 2019 edition of Conestoga’s Connections: Building Communities and Careers, which includes profiles of new and expanded campus facilities and initiatives, while highlighting some of the outstanding students, employees and friends who contribute to the success of the college and the broader community.

Connections is available in digital format online; print copies are available through Corporate Communications.

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