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Around the World: Why applying to study internationally is so difficult

By Sebastian Vasquez Gutierrez, May 31 2021—

Choosing the university you want to attend as an undergraduate student can be a very long and difficult process — international students, such as myself, face a much longer process. 

We have a lot more requirements to fill in comparison to domestic students.  First and foremost, we have to worry about our home countries’ education systems being structured differently than the Canadian system, subsequently requiring us to take the appropriate courses to be eligible to apply to universities abroad. In some cases, we aren’t aware of these many unspoken requirements until we are in our upper years and it is ultimately too late. Quite frankly, the university does not do a good job in communicating any of this to international students, many of whom have language barriers to overcome on top of navigating a website that is already frustrating in English. 

In preparing to study abroad, most international students have to take an English proficiency exam, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). For students that have been exposed to English their entire lives, this is an easy exam and is just a way to prove their language skills. However, for other students who have had significantly less exposure to English, proficiency exams needed to study abroad may be very challenging — but it remains to be the only way in which we can access academic institutions worldwide.

Since school systems are different worldwide, international students also have to determine if the secondary school courses they’ve taken correspond to the school system in Canada. While Canada’s secondary school system goes up to grade 12, other countries are limited to a grade 11 level, putting the eligibility of international students into further question. In Colombia, where I’m from, almost all schools — not counting international schools — were limited to grade 11 and to enter the University of Calgary, my courses had to match up with the Canadian system. Given the chance that they didn’t, I would have to take extra classes to secure my eligibility. In my case, I took the necessary courses to be eligible for my program, but eligibility requirements vary in their range of difficulty as seen with the Faculty of Engineering which has a lot more course requirements attributed to the extensiveness of the program altogether.

For students who don’t meet the course requirements because of this, they would have to attend an approved Canadian high school that offers those courses needed in order to even be considered an admission into their program of interest. Due to the cultural and language barriers between Canada and the rest of the world, Canadian courses are often very different from what international students see at home. They are often taught within a Canadian context that is difficult to grasp for students that have newly arrived, as they are not as aware of Canadian norms within the context of education. For some students, it would have been a difficult transition since the courses they take in their hometown are in their native language — and a transition from known topics to another language is an added challenge.

An added issue for international students is navigating university and course selection after getting accepted for their program of choice. If you already got accepted into university, depending on how early or late you were, you can start deciding your classes for the Fall and Winter semesters. In the case of the Faculty of Arts, navigating the first year as an international student can be a difficult process considering the requirements for degrees are not laid out as clearly as they should be. My major is Communications and Media Studies (CMS), and at first, I had no idea what classes I should take and the only response I received was an email with some program requirements. Domestic students go through this also, but probably have some idea of how to navigate the system with the help of an older sibling or friends from high school. International students do not always have this support.

The U of C website is very confusing since it shows all the CMS labelled courses but not real guides through all the core courses that I had to take in order to successfully graduate. It was not clear what courses I had to take and during which year either, so during my first semester I went to advising appointments multiple times to understand all the course requirements and which courses were according to my degree. The whole process is particularly difficult for international students because we have to deal with not being on campus and in many cases deal with a time difference. Also, it is very difficult to find someone who is going through the same process in the same university for international students. In my case, I did not know anyone from my same hometown attending U of C so I had to figure a lot of things by myself.

For comparison, many other universities have their core courses available online for any students who are interested in their program, a few being the University of Washington and Concordia University — both of which have specific courses you have to take and a good description of what the course is about. When we compare these outlines to those given by the U of C, we see it is lacking and it should be changed for students for clarity’s sake. 

The university should have a better platform and help incoming first-year international students since they face many different issues already such as moving to an entirely different country. They have to face the registration of classes and manage those first steps which can be very confusing since the information that is given to us is limited. It would be better if there was more clarity and an improved course registration system for incoming and current students.

Around the World is a column about the international student experience and a platform for the voices of those students to be heard. It aims to raise topics often avoided and issues often unspoken about as they pertain to international students at the University of CalgaryThis column is a part of our Voices section.

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