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Stepping out of the comfort zone

McGill’s student population is an amalgam of culture and diversity, a mix of ethnic backgrounds making their way across campus every day. 

Libraries and lecture halls buzz with snippets of conversation in an eclectic mélange of dialects. With over 20 per cent of the student population holding foreign passports, the university is truly international. Its students hail from regions as distant as Africa and the Asian Pacific, and as close as just south of the border.

As students, we herald this international status and feel proud about how “diverse” and “multicultural” our university is. But can one define what it is really like to be an international student at McGill?

Eline Koopmans, Netherlands (Alexandra Allaire / McGill Tribune)
Eline Koopmans, Netherlands (Alexandra Allaire / McGill Tribune)


The truth is that the “international experience” at this university is as diverse as its student body. For reasons that range from country of origin and educational background to previous experience living abroad, international students from across the globe see their student lives through dramatically different lenses.

Director of the International Student Services (ISS) office at McGill, Pauline L’Écuyer said that international student life “is very personal, and depends also on the student’s ability to deal with inter-cultural behaviours. There are students who come from very far abroad, but because their families have travelled around so much, they adapt better and more quickly to a new environment than someone who may be just a five hour drive from here who has never been exposed to so much multiculturalism.”

Ching-Lang Lin, who also goes by Pierre, his French name, is a Taiwanese exchange student from the prestgious Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris. He decided to come to McGill to improve his knowledge of English and French, which could help him become a judge in Taiwan. Though he faces a challenging language barrier, he appreciates Montreal and values its bilingualism.

To Ching-Lang, Montreal is “a city characteristic of its French and British roots,” similar to the mix of Japanese and Chinese cultures which characterizes his home country. He considers himself extremely lucky to be living and studying in a city like Montreal, which offers many the opportunity to explore different cultural sites outside McGill’s campus, but plans to return to Taiwan upon completion of his degree.

Eline Koopmans, a law student from the Netherlands, has also come to McGill from Europe on exchange. It was both Montreal’s location and McGill’s status in Canada that held special appeal for Koopmans, allowing her to travel and explore other areas of North America during her stay. When asked about her experience as an international student, she said it was the small local cultural nuances that made a big difference, such as the process of getting a phone plan, or the food and eating habits.

Unlike Pierre, who has found his experience most enriched by his ventures off campus, Eline found her niche by engaging in campus activities, like zumba classes at the McGill gym, a SSMU baking mini-course, and the SSMU Ski and Snowboard Club. She said she found it easiest to maintain social networks with students within her faculty. Though she harbours thoughts about staying in Canada for a couple of years after she finishes her program, she misses what she left behind.

“I feel the Netherlands is really my home. The small things and family, that is very important for me. I think I will always go back home in the end,” she said.

Mostafa I. Youssef, Egypt (Simon Poitrimolt / McGill Tribune)
Mostafa I. Youssef, Egypt (Simon Poitrimolt / McGill Tribune)

Mostafa I. Youssef, a second-year student in civil engineering, comes from Cairo, Egypt. As a graduate of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, the academic experience at McGill posed no major difficulties. However, the initial decision to leave his home country, family, and friends was the hardest decision he ever made.

Mostafa finds it difficult to feel truly at ease when stepping outside the “McGill bubble,” and is unsure of whether he has been exposed to “real” Canadian culture. Still, he has adapted well to campus life.

“The fact that the community here is not dictated by a single culture gave me a unique exposure, as well as an opportunity to observe, discover, and learn,” he said. “It took me some time to adapt to the atmosphere in general, but I personally think that people are very similar everywhere around the world, especially people our age.”

Coming from the Middle East, he did notice the distinct college culture present at McGill, one of drinking, partying, drug use, and more liberal sexual tendencies. While religion is not the sole factor in defining the Egyptian identity, Mostafa notes that it is very embedded in the culture, leading to a close, and often inseparable connection between social and religious habits.

“[In Egypt,] you can’t simply pop a can of beer in the middle of the street, or walk around drunk. It’s not something that is culturally acceptable,” he said.

In contrast, the adaptation process described from an American perspective presents a radically different face of the international experience from that described by Mostafa. Owen Nelson from Minneapolis, Minnesota came to McGill because he wanted to be “at least a thousand miles [away] from home.” His initial reaction to Montreal was eye-opening.

“My mind was blown. I got tingles all over my body. I knew it was perfect. It was a great city, the culture was so diverse, and had a ton of great energy,” He admitted.

Nelson’s work in the music industry has enriched his experience at McGill. Having had the chance to branch out to perform at various venues around Montreal, he learned first-hand about Canadian culture outside of the McGill bubble. Yet, when asked about the main cultural differences between Americans and Canadians, he couldn’t help but find similarities instead.

“I feel like we’re pretty similar…. I didn’t really feel like I was an international student per se, because I was on the same continent, and I spoke English.”

Yet, while universities in the U.S. also boast a high number of international students, Nelson finds McGill “a lot more culturally diverse and open,”  touching on the contrasting cultures of accommodation and assimilation that prevail in the two countries.

“Right now, I’m building a network that I might be able to use [for] the rest of my life,” Nelson said. “Once I start my career, I can do business, or communicate with people from all over the world, and that’s what I feel is a really great aspect at McGill, that sense of networking on a global scale.”

Ching-Lang (Pierre) Lin
Ching-Lang (Pierre) Lin


As Canada’s identity is based in multiculturalism, it is simultaneously accommodating—allowing students a degree of comfort and belonging—and exciting for those experiencing it for the first time.

However, regardless of where they come from, or why they came, international students at McGill have one common resource open to them: the ISS office hosts a variety of services, including orientation activities, a social and support network, health insurance guidance, workshops, and international student advising.

Whereas various educational systems worldwide prepare international students for adaptation to McGill’s academic environment, circumstances outside of the classroom can often present some of the toughest obstacles to their time at the university.

“Obviously, they were admitted to the university because we thought they could perform,” L’Écuyer explained. “Very often, academic difficulty is related to homesickness, or problems back home. One parent may be sick, there may be an accident, and the student may not be able to concentrate.”

This challenge is compounded by language barriers. While, according to L’Écuyer, the  inability to speak French does not often deter students from wanting to come to McGill, the challenge of finding jobs without an intermediate level of French quickly dawns on them. This problem is shared by many of their Canadian colleagues, but for students from abroad, it can be especially grim.

“Very often, students come with enough funding for their first couple of years and they hope that through part-time work or scholarships, they will be able to stay,” said L’Écuyer. However, if funding runs out, international students are sometimes unable to pay the steep international tuition fees and complete their degrees, especially given the difficulty of finding jobs off campus without good knowledge of French.

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Aware of the adversity that international students can face due to their temporary status, the ISS offers programs that aim to help students develop social connections and support networks to overcome these challenges. Popular among them is the “Buddy Program,” which matches international students with a “buddy” from McGill, according to faculty, country of interest, and gender. To Max Thoman, a second-year political science student who volunteered as a buddy,  “it’s really about being able to show them the ins-and-outs of McGill in particular, and the things that set it apart from other universities.”

Other student support groups, such as the International Student Network and the many culturally-based student clubs on campus, welcome international students with open arms, catering to specific cultural groups to help students find a niche in the McGill community through events, gatherings, and student activities.

The international status of well over 8,000 students at McGill carries with it the excitement of constant discovery, the joy of that comes along with adaptation, and the nostalgia of leaving behind what is known and dear. In the end, it is only through mutual support that the shared experiences of these students can lead to their eventual success.


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