Global view: Students from around the world on what they give to — and gain from — U of T

March 13, 2024 by Adina Bresge - U of T News

With the relaunch of the $3-million International Student Experience Fund, international students to enjoy expanded supports across the university's three campuses.

Applying for a study permit. Finding one’s place in a learning environment far away from home. Getting a handle on intercultural workplace etiquette.

International students come to the University of Toronto from all over the world, but share similar experiences adjusting to a new school, culture and country, says Juliana Rivas Torrente, a third-year student from Colombia who is majoring in economics and public policy in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Thankfully, she says, U of T offers services and resources to help international students navigate these transitions at every step of their academic journey.

Juliana Rivas Torrente.

“I've had a support for everything that has come up in my time at U of T,” Rivas Torrente says.

Rivas Torrente is one of two student members of a committee that adjudicates proposals submitted by faculty and staff to the International Student Experience Fund (ISEF), which was launched in 2018 to help foster a supportive environment on U of T’s three campuses by supporting initiatives that enhance the experience of the university’s international students and set them up for success.

To date, ISEF has funded 33 projects that range from initiatives that promote health and physical activity to translating the stories of multi-language learners into comics that promote intercultural understanding.

Now, U of T is building on the fund’s success by relaunching it with the approval of three new projects: the development of a digital tool that will help international students stay up to date on their immigration documents, a program to prepare graduate students for professional life across cultures and a project to enhance supports for undergraduate students in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education throughout their U of T journey.

Rivas Torrente says the ISEF’s relaunch underscores U of T’s ongoing commitment to supporting international students on campus and beyond.

“There is truly a want on their part to have us here because of what we can bring to the table,” she says. “It also serves as reassurance that there are funds being allocated to creating programs that are specifically tailored to international students.”

As a member of the Centre for International Experience’s International Student Experience Student Advisory Committee, Rivas Torrente has helped shape the many supports available to international students across the university — both through targeted programs and campus-wide initiatives that have integrated the needs of international students into their services.

“U of T has done a great job setting up an institution where people are going to thrive and learn and explore,” she says, noting that international students bring with them different experiences and perspectives that contribute to U of T’s growing reputation as a global learning institution.

“But what really ends up having that differential, beyond any other university, it's really getting to meet people that challenge your worldviews — your perceptions — that make you kind of shift your attention towards completely different concerns.”

As U of T prepares to welcome some of the world’s top students for fall 2024, U of T News spoke to three other international students about how their experiences, backgrounds and ideas converged to invigorate U of T’s global community.

Mahmoud Rashid

Mahmoud Rashid.
Photo: Safa Jinje.

Though he wasn’t able to fly home to Tanzania during winter break, Mahmoud Rashid says staff at the University of Toronto’s Chestnut Residence made sure he wasn’t feeling left out or alone.

Wellness co-ordinators organized activities including cookie decoration, postcard writing, reflection time and a communal dinner, says Rashid, a second-year student in materials science and engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

It’s just one of the myriad ways U of T supports international students at every step of their journey across the globe.

“There are so many resources that it can sometimes be overwhelming — academic and professional development, student life and mental health,” Rashid says.

He adds that he received an enthusiastic welcome to U of T moments after stepping off the plane at Toronto Pearson International Airport, where volunteer students at the U of T Airport Welcome Booth offered directions to campus and tips about Toronto.

As he settled in, Rashid says the Centre for International Experience smoothed his transition with resources about immigration, health care and life in Canada (including how to dress for the winter), while the First Year Office at U of T Engineering offered academic advising to set him up for success.

A Lester B. Pearson International Scholar, Rashid says the program, part of U of T’s growing menu of entrance scholarships for high-achieving international students, goes far beyond providing financial support for his four years of undergraduate studies.

It prepares Pearson scholars to not only excel academically, but give back to the community, says Rashid, providing resources ranging from workshops about time management to meet-and-greets with influential leaders.

“What’s a better way to learn about leadership than being with actual leaders and students who have similar dreams as yours?” he says. “They provide that platform where we get to learn from each other and make long-lasting connections.”

Whenever he feels homesick, Rashid says he turns to the African International Support Group for social support and a sense of community among students of several cultural backgrounds in Africa.

“Whatever place in the world you’re coming from, at U of T, you just know there’s a group or a club of people that have experienced something similar to you,” he says.

“There are so many supports that are there for you so that you can belong.”

Sapolnach Prompiengchai

Sapolnach Prompiengchai.

Sapolnach Prompiengchai, a fourth-year neuroscience student at U of T Scarborough, credits the university’s international community for informing his research on mental health.

He says the diverse perspectives reflected in his work likely resonated with the committee who selected him for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, making him the first student from Thailand to be selected through the Global Rhodes program.

“In mental health, to create culturally competent care, you need to understand that you need to incorporate diverse perspectives, and that was ingrained in me at the University of Toronto,” says Prompiengchai, who attended high school in Bangalore, India before coming to U of T Scarborough.

“By understanding such diverse perspectives, I was able to truly appreciate the importance of reconciling differences to solve issues. And I think, in a way, that aligns with Rhodes’ mission of fostering a dynamic global community.”

Prompiengchai is among five U of T students and learners who are headed to the University of Oxford as part of the latest cohort of exceptional young people from around the world to receive the coveted scholarship.

He says U of T  — a large and globally top-ranked research university with expertise across a broad range of fields — equipped him with a multidisciplinary outlook that will set him up to succeed among the world-renowned ranks of the Rhodes community. That includes learning how neuroscience intersects with global issues such as mental health and climate change.

Moreover, Prompiengchai says he gained a range of perspectives from the U of T community, by making friends at the International Students Centre and learning from global leaders as a Pearson Scholar.

And he has contributed his own perspective in turn.

“Regardless of what you’re interested in, you're going to get an extensive, long-term network of exceptional students and faculty from around the world,” he says of the university.

“Within this diverse set of networks, you also shape the place and make the place even more diverse. It’s a really good cycle of learning.”

Laura Ramos Barbosa

Laura Ramos Barbosa.

When she arrived at U of T in 2019, Laura Ramos Barbosa remembers going to the Centre for International Experience (CIE) with questions about everything from getting a Social Insurance Number to navigating the St. George campus.

Now, with a bachelor’s degree under her belt, Ramos Barbosa is the one doling out answers as a University Health Plan co-ordinator at CIE as she pursues a master’s in social work.

She’s among a number of international students who have gone on to work at CIE as part of a knowledge exchange that spans graduating classes and continents.

“When you get to speak to other international students, you get to build more of that community, interact with people from other places and find people with common backgrounds.”

Originally from Brazil, Ramos Barbosa lived in a number of different places before landing in Toronto. She says she’s brought these experiences to bear in the classroom, particularly during her undergraduate studies in women and gender studies and anthropology, giving peers a perspective into parts of the world with which they might not be familiar.

“I was always trying to connect my experiences and identity with my education,” she says. “I was able to bring those experiences to the table for other people to learn about and, on the other hand, I got to learn from other people's experiences.”