When Shreya Rawat stepped out of Toronto Pearson Airport in March of 2022, more than 27 hours after leaving her home in Delhi, India, she walked straight into a snowstorm. “I breathed in the fresh, cold air and the reality of my big move hit me,” says Rawat, now 23. Before coming to Canada for a social service worker diploma at Sheridan College, Rawat was a cabin crew member with SpiceJet, an Indian budget airline. She’d chosen that path because she always had a desire to travel. But after three years of flying around the world, she was ready to stay put. She wasn’t, however, looking to remain in Delhi: Rawat wanted a better work-life balance than her relatives, many of whom were working long hours into their 50s and 60s, with little time for themselves. A friend who’d recently immigrated to Canada sold her on its benefits—in addition to its celebrated multiculturalism, the country offered higher salaries and the promise of more leisure time. Ontario’s green and open spaces appealed to her, compared to the air pollution and dense traffic of Delhi. As she waited for her friend to pick her up from Pearson, Rawat found herself navigating mixed emotions. “I was excited, but I was also nervous, and scared of the unknown.”
Rawat was one of the record 651,235 international students approved for a permit in 2022 to leave behind their homes, families and support networks and seek an education at a post-secondary institution in Canada. For Rawat and many other international students, the attraction of Canada’s colleges is the same as it is for domestic students: more affordable tuition than universities, with a greater emphasis on practical education, as well as co-ops that provide work experience. But Rawat quickly discovered that international students face a set of unique challenges—and a lot of hard work.
All students must meet college admission requirements by submitting application forms and transcripts, but often international students also have to provide proof of language proficiency and financial support. Most international students, in addition, need to secure a $150 study permit through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). Once Rawat was accepted at Sheridan College, she scrambled to submit an overwhelming mountain of documents for her student permit, including medical exams, fingerprints and photos, as well as further proof of financial support. (Students need to show they have a minimum of $10,000 for living costs, plus enough to cover tuition.) “If I was to repeat the entire process again, I would have taken at least a year before moving to get everything in order,” she says. After struggling to navigate Canada’s student permit requirements, she found a placement organization called IDP Education, which guides foreign nationals through the rigorous application process of their country of choice. “Getting the help of those agencies can save you a lot of time and headache,” she says. Organizations like IDP and ApplyBoard don’t charge fees for their services, and many Canadian colleges offer student advisers and information sessions for international applicants.
The next step for international students is figuring out a place to live. In major urban centres like the GTA, where rental vacancies are rare, landlords often request proof of employment and, though it’s not legal, might ask for several months’ rent in advance. These are challenging requirements for international students, especially if they’re still back home when they begin their search. On-campus student residences are a popular and affordable option, but spots are limited. International students can use Craigslist, Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace to find rentals, while organizations like the non-profit Canada Homestay Network help match international students with Canadian hosts. Rawat was stressed about trying to find an apartment near Sheridan College’s Brampton campus while she was still living in India.
Fortunately, her friend in Canada served as her eyes on the ground. Eventually, she secured a basement apartment in Mississauga through Facebook Marketplace. When she arrived for the first time, she found that the one-bedroom was incredibly drafty and its walls and floors were in poor condition. Despite its shabbiness, the apartment still cost $1,100 a month.
On top of that, she was shelling out $16,000 a year in tuition. On average, international undergraduate students pay more than four times the tuition that domestic students do. It’s a boon for institutions: in Ontario, which is the most popular destination, colleges generate more than two-thirds of their tuition fee revenue from international students. The majority arrive from India, like Rawat.
To help international students pay their higher costs, the government of Canada offers financial aid, such as the Study in Canada Scholarships, which cover tuition for students from 20 countries. Eligibility requirements can be very specific for many scholarships, and the applications pile on even more paperwork, but Rawat says this is where student placement organizations can save you time with their expertise. Colleges also offer their own scholarships: Rawat received $1,000 that’s available to all social work students starting their first year at Sheridan College. Many colleges also provide entrance bursaries for international students.
Even with those supports, international students often find themselves in need of work. The federal government has capped that at 20 off-campus hours a week, although, in November of 2022, it temporarily lifted the limit in order to help international students make ends meet and support employers in addressing ongoing labour shortages. (The cap is meant to go back into effect at the start of 2024.) Rawat managed to get a job as a customer service representative at Home Depot, but juggling her job with college and an unpaid internship at a school for autistic children meant she was either studying, working or commuting 15 hours a day, every day of the week. To get her through, she relied on her family back in Delhi. “I was usually so exhausted going to bed every night that I needed my mother to call me on WhatsApp each morning to make sure I got up,” she says with a laugh.
Umut Çetin, a 21-year-old computer engineering student at Toronto’s Seneca College, understands that feeling of burnout. Çetin decided to move from Istanbul in 2021 for opportunities in Toronto’s booming tech sector (Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft all have offices there). He was drawn by the hands-on education offered by Canadian colleges, although it meant a heavy workload for him and his classmates: 12-hour days of lectures, lab work and research were a regular occurrence. In one of his courses, he and a partner had to create, from scratch, the software and hardware for a system that tracked and displayed the number of available and occupied spots in a mall parking lot—all in a span of three months.
Çetin soon hit his limit, realizing he had to carve out time for a life in Canada beyond assignments and lectures, even if the pressure to do well at school still weighed on him. “I had to switch my focus to the life I wanted after graduating,” he says. Toronto has a sizable Turkish population, and through a childhood friend who’d also moved to the city, Çetin found a community to join for barbecues and camping trips, far from the screens that were wearing him down. “I’d like to be a successful entrepreneur who’s his own boss,” he says, “but creating those friendships showed me the importance of having the freedom and flexibility to enjoy things beyond work.”
Communities can be vital for international students. When Tainan Lima, a 32-year-old mechanical engineering student from Salvador, Brazil, moved into a quiet Halifax suburb in 2021 to attend Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC), he knew he was trading the diversity of a big city like Toronto for a less competitive job market and a more reasonable cost of living. But the social isolation came as more of a surprise: “I found that people in Nova Scotia, and Canada in general, are very polite, but it was hard to build deeper connections with them.”
That reticence was a change from the more open culture back home, where people tend to be friendlier with strangers and large social gatherings through the week are the norm. At school, Lima befriended Latin and South Americans who also struggled to adapt to the social culture in Halifax; now, they get together to enjoy music, food and festivals. “These friendships helped turn Halifax into my home,” he says. It’s still his home: Lima obtained a lucrative job at a defence contractor with an office in Halifax right after he graduated in the spring. The job came through connections he’d made in Nova Scotia’s Study and Stay program, which encourages international students in their final year to remain in the province after graduation. In addition to mentorship and career training from people in their field, participants attend special conferences to network with fellow students and potential employers from across Nova Scotia. Each Atlantic province offers its own version of the program.
Networking isn’t always easy, particularly for international students adjusting to a new country’s social customs. Çetin found that small talk isn’t as important as it is in Turkey—people in Toronto seemed to prefer he cut to the chase. But he also discovered that experienced professionals were more amenable to having a coffee with a much younger student than would be the case back home, especially if he approached them with specific questions or requests for help. “It also helps to connect with someone five to 10 years older in your field,” he says; those people survived some of the challenges he was facing but remembered what it was like to be in his shoes. Now, Çetin has signed up nearly 20 clients for the digital marketing company, NSU Marketing, he founded in December of 2022, and he’s looking to stay in Toronto for the long term to build up his business and obtain his permanent residency.
Rawat, who graduated this past June, hopes to find work as a developmental therapist for autistic children. Nearly 18 months after landing at Pearson, she’s still chasing the work-life balance that brought her to Canada—she’s cleared the first hurdle of school, but she knows that building her career is the next step, and she still expects to be busy. Still, over the summer, she found time to travel to Niagara Falls with friends she made in Toronto. The uneasy feeling of her early days in Canada is gone. “I’ve met so many wonderful people I never would have if I’d stayed in Delhi, who’ve helped me grow into a stronger person,” she says. “I know the sacrifices will be worth it. I’m proud of the person I am today.”