Newfoundland and Labrador is renowned for its friendly people. Dr. Xuemei Li, an assistant professor with the Faculty of Education, will attest to that. But is “friendly” enough for newcomers who are attempting to make this place their new home? Dr. Li says that international students who travel here to study often find themselves lost and overwhelmed in this strange new land. As a former international student, Dr. Li is cognizant of the challenges faced by newcomers studying at Memorial.
Language isn’t the only barrier. Newfoundland and Labrador’s customs are foreign, as are the colloquialisms and cultural idiosyncrasies. According to Dr. Li, the ability to recognize and adapt to these traits can make or break an international student’s experience here. Dr. Li volunteers her time to help these students become familiar with the local atmosphere. She believes, above all else, that finding a connection, a place within the local community that is comfortable and comforting, is the key to student success.
Dr. Li is convinced that most international students can deal with the difficulties of academic work taught in a language other than their native tongue. However, this is only possible if loneliness and isolation do not overwhelm them. To mitigate these issues, many turn to the International Student Advising Office (ISA) for help. The ISA provides advice and resources on topics including health insurance, mentor and outreach services and getting settled in St. John's.
One of these key resources is the MUN Mentors program. This volunteer program is designed to help international students get better acquainted with Newfoundland and Labrador, the university and the local people. When volunteers and students are matched, they meet regularly to talk, listen and learn. These casual meetings enable international students to better adjust to our provincial customs, gain confidence, strengthen their cultural understanding of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as experience the warmth of genuine, one-on-one human interaction. The ISA reveals that mentors are often one of the few local contacts that international students make during their time at Memorial, therefore these conversations are truly invaluable.
The ISA has seen how volunteers also benefit from this interaction. They get to make new friends, develop greater cultural awareness and understanding, gain valuable volunteer experience and feel the simple joy of helping others. Get-togethers often happen over coffee, on or off campus, and some evolve into lasting friendships.
Memorial’s international student enrolment has grown considerably over the last five years, however, that is no accident. The university has been very active in international recruitment markets for quite some time.
In 2013 there were 1,872 international students enrolled at the university. According to Dr. Li, international students who come to Canada are not only interested in studying here, but also remaining here to work and live. They wish to contribute to the local community and economy, to start families and build lives here. But in order to accomplish this, Dr. Li insists that they must first establish a connection to people and place.
The provincial government is working to attract and retain more immigrants to offset population decline and to address the skilled worker shortage. New immigrants and international students have become integral to the sustainability of our province. However, a warm welcome is not enough to retain them. Dr. Li reminds us that these international students have travelled very far and endured many hardships to start new lives here in Canada. Those lives must include meaningful relationships with local people.
Can we push ourselves to be more than a province of friendly, welcoming people? Can we open our social circles to new people? Can we try harder to help newcomers and international students integrate themselves into our communities? Dr. Li believes that doing so will benefit everyone and strongly encourages us all to try to build new genuine connections wherever possible. Only then will we all be able to thrive.