This past year has been especially challenging for international co-operative education students, say two Memorial academic staff members.
Theresa MacKenzie and Rebecca Newhook are academic staff members in co-operative education for the faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) and Science.
“Close to 50 per cent of our program participants are international students, and the global pandemic made it difficult for many of them to find work and meet program requirements,” said Ms. MacKenzie.
Serious financial difficulty
Work permit processing times slowed to a crawl, affecting students who did manage to secure a work term, and while some offers were withdrawn, other opportunities evaporated overnight, they say.
To compound the issue, many students found themselves in serious financial difficulty when they were not able to secure work terms and when family members, who had been supporting them from afar, lost their jobs.
“Work experience we gained in our home countries is not considered as valuable . . . even though these experiences are what make us unique.”
Students had the added stress of being distant from support networks and worried about the health of families and friends.
Their education – now online – was an isolating experience with few opportunities to meet people, improve communication and language skills, or participate in work-integrated learning.
Senem Gozel, an international student from Turkey in Memorial’s master of applied psychological science program, says she remembers how insecure she felt about her future in Canada when her work-term position was cancelled due to the pandemic.
“International students, and newcomers in general, face so many challenges in our job search because the work experience we gained in our home countries is not considered as valuable as the Canadian experience, even though these experiences are what make us unique,” she said.
Excluded from federal programs
While emergency funding flowed to support student placements via the Government of Canada’s Student Work Placement Program and other federal initiatives, international students were excluded from these programs, the women say.
“Employers who might have hired an international student focused instead on hiring Canadian citizens, as required by the funding programs,” said Ms. Newhook.
“This limitation disadvantaged international students, certainly, but also employers who couldn’t access funding for their chosen candidate unless that candidate was a Canadian.”
One year later, international students continue to be excluded from COVID-19 relief programs, as well as from most federally funded work-term positions and employment subsidy programs.
The Student Employment Programs Regulations of the Public Service Employment Act mandate the hiring of Canadians ahead of persons “who are not Canadian citizens”, but the act does not specifically exclude them, says Ms. MacKenzie.
“Yet, in practice most federal departments will not open their co-op competitions to international students,” she said.
“And while the Government of Canada encourages private entities to hire workers trained outside Canada, their failure to follow their own advice is both confusing and frustrating for highly qualified international students.”
Valentine Ampah came to Memorial from Ghana in September 2019.
He says he “constantly doubts” whether or not his experiences will be considered valuable to Canadian employers.
“You ask yourself, ‘Why only citizens or permanent residents?’ Is it that international students aren’t good enough? It can create a sense of inferiority, especially for those who are part of a minority group.”
For international students, work terms can also help with integration into the community and with building an immigration pathway.
Most Canadian universities, including Memorial, provide supports and services that allow international students to thrive and to move towards Canadian citizenship, if that’s a student’s goal, say Ms. MacKenzie and Ms. Newhook.
“A lot of international students . . . need work-term placements to build their networks and work experiences.”
For Eman Elbakry, a recent graduate of the biology department’s co-operative education program, having pre-graduation experience is “very important” for international students who aspire to build a career in Canada post-graduation.
“I had zero work experience and joined the co-op program specifically for building up that experience,” she said.
“A lot of international students . . . need work-term placements to build their networks and work experiences. Excluding them from funding programs, therefore, can be detrimental to their careers.”
Lasting effects on future prospects
Without work experience, opportunities for post-graduate work for international students are fewer, and when international co-op students fail to secure work terms it can have lasting effects on their future prospects.
“Statistics Canada recently reported that former international students earned less in the five years after graduation than those with Canadian citizenship,” said Ms. Newhook.
“One of the primary causes identified is a comparative lack of work experience of the students surveyed. It was a more important factor in future earnings than a student’s years of education or their academic discipline.”
While a recent comparative study of international student recruitment approaches in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia lauds Canada’s approach, and claims that Canada’s immigration and education policies support access to employment after graduation, the women say the paper doesn’t address the issue of pre-graduation employment.
“We would argue that there is little alignment between Canadian policies on immigration, employment and diversity, and a big gap between political rhetoric and the real, lived experiences of international students,” said Ms. Mackenzie.
“If we want to ethically recruit international students, and if we want these bright, motivated students to remain in Canada, we need to bridge this gap by, at minimum, investing in international student supports and including international students in federally funded employment programs so that they leave university with some solid work experience behind them.”
March is Co-op and Work Integrated Learning Month in Canada.