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Today’s international students are different than any who have come before due to the COVID environment they’re living in right now. They are as eager as ever to study abroad, but they are also facing all the restrictions and frustrations that are part of travelling in a pandemic. Some have been able to get to campus, and others remain in their home countries, studying online as they wait for study permits to be approved.

Both groups of students naturally have questions around online learning platforms, and about how much support – academic and otherwise – they can expect from their chosen institution. The COVID context calls for institutions to give careful thought to how they are providing student support services – including virtual orientation.

In this post, we’re going to look at the orientation strategies of two institutions, Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, British Columbia, and St. Francis Xavier University (STFX) in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

Thompson Rivers University: More committed than ever to student wellbeing

TRU is one of the original Canadian pioneers of international education and is famous for its strong student support over the years. When Canadian borders closed for months in 2020 and when most in-person learning was suspended due to COVID, TRU’s international department prioritized alleviating students’ anxiety above all. Staff have been focused on supporting both registered students who have not yet arrived in Canada and those who have arrived in Kamloops. Laurie Robinson, Director, International Partnerships and Business Development, explains:

“Our students have committed to uprooting their lives to come to Canada, full of hope for an amazing, in-person learning experience. COVID is obviously a major disruption, and our task was – and remains – to keep them on track in their studies and to make them feel confident in learning on our online platforms. We want them to have a rewarding experience even in this challenging time.”

Ms. Robinson runs “Virtual Success” workshops for registered students in Kamloops and overseas. These workshops help students to get familiar with TRU, understand the online platform for their remote courses, and start interacting with their peers. For the fall intake, three weeklong workshops were held for hundreds of students in different time zones, beginning in July (much earlier than orientation would normally happen). Workshops were also held in December for the winter intake. “You definitely want to be on the early side with orientation during COVID to keep students engaged and reassured that they are going to be treated well with great support,” says Ms. Robinson.

Participating in the workshops are faculty, student advisors fluent in students’ own languages, alumni, and a career counsellor. Ms. Robinson says that having TRU’s career counsellor present is key, since students may be more nervous about whether COVID will disrupt their job opportunities: “We remain very committed to helping our international students transition into great careers.”

Ms. Robinson notes that being able to offer well-executed virtual support services is a new competitive advantage:

“We have students who weren’t really thinking of studying in Western Canada before the pandemic. Now, knowing they will be studying online for some time, they are looking carefully at which institutions will support them the best and keep them on track to graduating on time – so location isn’t everything and support services become more of a priority.”

Rueben Onyango, TRU’s Acting Associate Director, International Student Services, says that the virtual orientation services – including ongoing virtual “town halls” for students (launched right at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to make sure every student’s question is answered) – will remain an orientation strategy when COVID is over.

Mr. Onyango says that before COVID, students would typically arrive in Kamloops just prior to orientation and would then attend a pretty intense week of information sessions while still jetlagged. Now, his team has moved the sessions into manageable online modules:

“This allows students to work through the material at their own pace up to a month before the live orientation sessions, which are subsequently not lengthy and nicely tie everything together. Our hope is that students retain more information this way and also that their transition to a new life in Canada is more relaxed.”

Mr. Onyango says that the majority of TRU’s international students this year are enjoying the virtual, face-to-face sessions. Even when they have the option of going in-person to see a student advisor, they are choosing instead to meet virtually.

“Even though things have transitioned to virtual support for the most part,” says Mr. Onyango, “we’re finding just as many opportunities to connect with our new students and make sure they feel supported.” He notes that in the early months of the pandemic, his team phoned every single international student to see how they were doing and to help them stay on track in their studies.

He says that TRU’s roster of nearly a dozen advisors fluent in students’ languages – including Chinese, Russian, and Spanish – is key to making students feel comfortable asking questions. “If they have questions after attending the orientation sessions (which are delivered in English), they have an opportunity to ask them during cultural sessions that are delivered in their own language and also in a more informal tone and setting.”

St. Francis Xavier University: COVID has raised the bar for planning and attention to detail

Donald Rasmussen, an international student advisor at STFX, says that COVID has required a much higher level of logistical planning when it comes to welcoming students and making sure they feel safe and ready for their university experience:

“This year more than ever, students need to see that there’s a carefully thought-out plan for them. They need to be welcomed at the airport, safely and seamlessly transported to their quarantine rooms, settled in with everything they need for a comfortable isolation period, and provided with enough information during orientation that they know what to do if they have any questions about anything.”

Like Mr. Onyango at TRU, Mr. Rasmussen says that during COVID, the international team at STFX has decided to offer a slightly less intense orientation programme so that students don’t feel overwhelmed during this challenging time:

“We also know that we need a recreational component so that students can look forward to a fun experience at STFX – even in COVID. Students who are members of our International Student Society take part in orientation where they play games and are involved in community-building activities as well as information sessions.”

Even more than in typical, non-COVID years, international students’ parents want to hear that their children are being well taken care of and settling in nicely. “We have a few more phone calls and emails from parents, which is to be expected, and we’re happy to be able to tell them how smoothly everything has been going.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Rasmussen says that his team has been working 10x harder than they would in a typical year during this time of COVID disruption, but that the challenge will serve them once the pandemic is over. “It’s expanded my concept of what level of organization is possible,” he says. Mr. Rasmussen goes on to say it’s raised the bar for orientation services going forward:

“We’ve had to consider so many details to ensure our new international students feel (1) welcome and safe when they arrive and (2) prepared to embark on an incredible academic and life experience at STFX – and now we know we can do that. It’s been a very worthwhile challenge.”

CP - Author Image - Meghan Krohn
Meghan Krohn03 February 2021