Written by Amr Ismail – Partnership Director IWA-YWP Canada
As a graduate student who started his program 6 months before the whole world was shut down because of a global pandemic, my graduate studies experience is kind of unique.
I came to Canada as an international student to study Environmental and Water Resources Engineering after working professionally as a Structural Engineer for almost 2 years. So, the first obstacle I encountered was familiarizing myself with a whole new set of terminology that I had never encountered before. Additionally, dealing with the sky-high expectations of my supervisor while working on a very complicated biological system and managing coursework had its own physical and emotional toll.
I do not believe I experienced any communication problems considering my mother tongue is Arabic, but I know my case is not usual since I grew up in the UK and was taught in English since kindergarten. However, this is one of the difficulties some international students encounter, especially when dealing with idioms and slang.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges an international student faces is managing finances, especially when residing in one of the most expensive provinces, such as Ontario and British Columbia. The basic graduate scholarship in engineering is around $13,000 – $19,000, depending on your university and the program. In most cases, this is barely enough to live on your own, let alone being able to enjoy yourself every now and then.
As I have mentioned before, just after 6 months into my program, the whole world was in some sort of lockdown, and almost everything was moved online. This put me in a rather unfortunate position since I could not build connections, make friends, and get the taste of what a university life is like here.
All in all, every one of these points has a way around it, and it is not all dark. Before you start your program, you should talk to your supervisor and pin down their expectations from you and make sure they are realistic and attainable, and you will have all the resources you need to achieve them. You should not be afraid of being vulnerable about the hardships or difficulties you are facing even on a personal level.
Try to get as much exposure to those surrounding you as possible. Every university has its own international student association that will provide you with as much help as possible as long as you do not shy away from asking for it. Being engaged with your fellow students, whether they are international or not, will assure you that you are not alone and that whatever you are going through, there are also others who are going through them as well. The more you are exposed to others, the more confident you will be and even if there is a language barrier, you will find that it is slowly dissolving. Try to find likeminded people around who share your interests and enjoy engaging in the same activities you do. In my case, joining IWA-YWP Canada provided me with the opportunity to meet a wonderful team that helped me build connections and make new friendships from all over Canada.
Struggling with finances is inevitable; hence, make sure you check the available scholarships, especially internal or program-specific scholarships, which might be less competitive. You could also check on-campus jobs, which might not be demanding and might help ease your financial struggle.
And last but not least, if you feel that you are overwhelmed or your mental health is declining, make sure you take a break; reach out to those who can help, and do not shy away from seeking therapy. While you might not have proper access to it here as a graduate student, you might be able to get online consultation from your home country in a more affordable way that will not put a dent to your budget considering the currency exchange.