By Lane Wade
When Colin Chiu sat down for class in his first year, he had to translate every word his professor said.When giving class presentations, he lost marks because his English was poor and during office hours, he stumbled across words and struggled to communicate his questions.
Chiu is an international student, one of about 700 here at Ryerson who experience these barriers on a daily basis as they attempt to achieve their academic goals. Faced with the difficulty of learning a new language, finding new friends, combating homesickness and living up to their parents expectations, international students face an onslaught of uncertainties and stress.
Now in his fourth year of Applied Computer Science, Chiu remembers arriving from Hong Kong into a very different culture.
“It was quite overwhelming and it took me a long time to adapt. Spoken English is still a problem. I can’t edit and change the things I say, like I can when I write.”
Chiu will be participating in the English and Communication Support Program offered at Ryerson through the International Services for Students centre.
Located on the fourth floor of Jorgenson Hall, the ISS is home to a bevy of helpful support staff who understand the specific needs of international newcomers.
The new coordinator of the centre is Diana Ning. Her job is to make sure that the symptoms associated with major life transitions don’t escalate into the worst case scenario: Students giving up on themselves.
“It’s not easy to be a new student in a university,” Ning says. “There is the adjustment and transition from high school even for students who speak English fluently. Imagine if you didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anybody and didn’t know where to get help. Some students have told me that they don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
More than 60 per cent of the 530 accepted first-year international students do not have English as their first language. So, most difficulties come from is communication and inadequate English proficiency.
The ECS program, open to all students, helps them bridge the language gap in a non-threatening, non-lecture based environment.
“We will help them gain improved vocabularies and presentation skills,” says Ning. “But these aren’t social sessions. Students spend an hour with us and come out with practical skills they can use in their classes the next day.”
The ECS program will run four sessions weekly and will be led by Chris Brierley, a professional ESL facilitator whose resume includes working for LINC, a program that provides language instruction to newcomers in the GTA, and four years teaching English in Japan.
Brierley is excited about creating an environment where the students can go beyond his expectations.
“I prefer active classes and lots of participation,” he says. “The classes will generally be small and there will be a lot of emphasis on cooperative learning, group work and pair work. I teach learning strategies like skimming and scanning, producing summaries and self-monitoring. Exercises that will help them beyond class.”
To address other issues of homesickness, finding new friends and getting around campus, the ISS also offers an International Student Peer Support program, where first-year students are linked to senior-level students.
Anne-Marie Salem, a second-year Civil Engineering student who was enrolled in the ISPS program last year, said her peer supporter helped her with health card forms, on-campus job searches and short-cuts around Toronto.
“I used to walk to Union Station every weekend in the winter to take the bus to visit my relatives in Pickering,” said Salem. “He told me about the PATH [Toronto’s underground walkway] so I didn’t have to walk outside in the cold anymore. It was really helpful.”