In 2008, I departed for Canada as an international graduate student and, as a US citizen, had the benefit of applying for a study permit in person at the airport. I arrived prepared with an admission letter outlining teaching and research assistantships as my proof of funds. There was just one problem: the funding was “contingent on enrolment,” a phrase my immigration officer did not like. Without proof of enrolment, the officer argued, I lacked reliable proof of funds. She considered refusing my permit.
Now that I’m an International Student Advisor, I understand her rationale; at the time, I was stunned. Many embodied privileges – e.g. being white and native English-speaking – had afforded me unconscious benefits throughout my life, and despite years of international travel, I had never before encountered a moment when my US passport wasn’t unquestionably accepted.
If you’re rolling your eyes at my naiveté, I understand; given the wide range of student circumstances, relatively entitled students’ grappling with seemingly minor immigration frustrations may not land high on an advisor’s list of priorities. However, I share my story to stress that first-hand recognition of the power of borders is often a new and potentially influential experience for many similarly privileged international students while studying in Canada.
It’s not that Canada is unwelcoming to international students, although students’ experiences range widely. I was ultimately admitted – albeit with a stern warning, a few tears, and a short (extendable) study permit – and went on to benefit from generous funding, an excellent education, and, eventually, permanent residency. I appreciate Canada’s comparatively open stance to the increasingly contentious issue of global migration and follow the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada John McCallum’s calls for Canada to “up our game” and be even “more welcoming to international students” with (cautious) optimism.
However, Canada is undeniably intertwined in global systems of hegemony and exclusion as governments struggle to manage their economies. International students – even those previously unfamiliar with barriers – may, for the first time, be required to turn down work opportunities while studying in Canada. Long visa processing times may interrupt travel plans. Permanent residency may remain elusive. In these moments, unexpected questions can arise as students navigate mixed messages circulated across campuses, cities, and the media: am I a boon to the research sector or undue competition? Contributing to multiculturalism or threatening nationalism? Welcomed for who I am or just my tuition? It can be an uncomfortable and confusing space in which to exist, testing one’s resilience while requiring the emotional labour of personal growth. Some are up for the challenge. Others lack the ability, confidence, or motivation to dive deep into introspection and reflection.
As international educators, we have the opportunity to ensure all students build upon their recognition of privileges – both those they have and those they lack – to work towards transformation. When we advise on immigration policy, we are advising on complex issues of colonialism and power distribution. We need to support students in coming to terms with one’s place in an entangled and unjust world – and then, if they are ready, guide them to dive deeper, embrace the complexities, and keep asking questions.
There are no easy answers. The challenge for our profession is how to do this task in a non-coercive way without repeating past mistakes. As we strive towards this goal we, too, are required to perform the emotional labour of drawing compassion from our own personal experiences, introspections, and reflections.
Lisa Brunner is an International Student Advisor (Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant) and PhD student in Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia. Previously, Lisa worked on a variety of immigration-related research, curriculum design, and teaching projects with Bilkent University, the Cultural Orientation Resource Center at the Center for Applied Linguistics, Immigrant Services Society of BC, and Simon Fraser University.
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