illustration by dominic bugatto

An International Student’s Dilemma

“People blame international students like me for the housing crisis. I’m thinking of leaving.”


May 14, 2024

In late 2022, I moved from New Delhi to Thunder Bay, Ontario, as an international student. I was 18 years old and alone for the first time in my life. I had just committed to spending the next three years studying at Lakehead University and living in a small, isolated city. Tuition would cost upward of $100,000—my father, an architect, and my mother, a makeup artist, pooled together much of our family’s savings to cover it. They believed it was a necessary sacrifice for me to pursue my education.

I’ve been passionate about video games since I was a kid. I love the creativity required to create complex animations and characters like Nathan Drake from the Uncharted adventure series. I’ve always dreamed of working at a gaming studio, but I had to leave India to give myself the best chance of accomplishing this goal. A degree from an Indian university is only respected in South Asia, but a Canadian degree opens doors anywhere in the world. Canada also has a reputation for welcoming international students with open arms, and the quality of life is better. Housing costs are comparable in both places, but salaries are much higher in Canada than in New Delhi, and the government even supports international students by offering work permits after graduation. Many major video game studios have offices in Canada too, like Ubisoft in Montreal and Rockstar Games in Toronto. Most international students go to urban centres, like Toronto and Vancouver, but I was drawn to the lower cost of living in Thunder Bay.

I was blown away when I first saw Lake Superior, with its pristine blue waters stretched out as far as I could see. I studied hard, befriended students in my residence and even discovered that Thunder Bay has a sizable Indian community. I skied with friends at Mount Baldy in the winter and kayaked on Lake Superior in the summer. I had a part-time job as a cook at a local casino, where I worked 20 hours a week for $18.50 an hour. After my first year living on campus, I moved out, renting a room for $600 a month in a townhome I share with three housemates. I still feel homesick and lonely sometimes, but I always remind myself how much my family had invested in sending me here.

That’s why I was unsettled when the Canadian government announced it was reducing the number of international students in Canada, with plans to issue 35 per cent fewer study permits over the next two years. In addition, spouses of international students in undergraduate and college programs will no longer get work permits. Since arriving in Canada, I’d seen news headlines and social media posts about Canadians blaming international students—and immigrants as a whole—for the housing crisis and skyrocketing costs of living. But I also feel the effects of those crises: I can barely afford to live in Thunder Bay, even when I always cook at home and take public transit. It’s also hard for international students to get jobs; I struggled to understand my casino co-workers at first because they spoke so fast and I wasn’t used to their accents. A few of them got frustrated with me, and the whole experience made me feel alienated.

I worry about other changes that might happen in the next two years: will the government reduce the number of years an international student can stay in Canada after graduation? Will work permit holders have a harder time applying for permanent residency? I fear that all the sacrifices my family and I made will go down the drain. I’m not graduating until 2026, but I’m already obsessively researching the job market and figuring out contingency plans in case I can’t stay in Canada.

International students contribute a lot, not just through our tuition fees, taxes and economic activity, but also by filling labour shortages. I’ve only scratched the surface in Thunder Bay, and I want to build a career and perhaps start a family here. But given how expensive and competitive it is—and considering the uncertain immigration landscape—I’ve been thinking a lot about leaving Canada once I graduate. Immigrating to the U.S. is also challenging, but if I get a job offer there, I would leave in a heartbeat.

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