The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Mount Royal University hopes to increase international student enrollments from 2 per cent to 3.5 per cent, as discussed in MRU’s  Comprehensive Institutional Plan.

The plan to “internationalize” MRU also includes:

  • Recruiting more international students
  • Enhancing supports for international students
  • Establishing international student quotas by program

But let’s be clear — these targets also result in increased revenues thanks to incoming students who pay three times more in tuition than local students.

A little bit about me, Mariam Taiwo

Photo courtesy of Mariam TaiwoPhoto courtesy of Mariam Taiwo.

 I’m one of those international students. I’m from Nigeria. I’m 19 and enrolled in my third year of the journalism program at MRU. I started university at 16, but that’s another story. My family is back home. My parents are middle-class. My mom’s a civil servant in engineering and my dad owns and runs a primary school. Yes, it’s my decision to be here in Canada as a visiting student, but it is hard.

Every semester, it gets harder to pay fees, which are $1,932 per three credit course. That’s three times what domestic students pay. My parents used to send money, but the economy in Nigeria is poor and exchange rates are high. Money troubles, coupled with homesickness, culture shock and a new academic environment have made things incredibly difficult.

My concern is that international students do not get enough value for what we pay. Let me break that down. Every semester, I’m scrambling to find $7,728 to cover four courses.  By my calculations, an estimated 300 plus international students at MRU are handing over $4.6 million to the school each year. That’s based on taking four courses per term.

What are we getting in return?

Touching base with the International Education Office

I caught up with Dianne MacDonald at the International Education Office at Mount Royal University. MacDonald, the Director of International Education, routinely hears concerns about the lack of supports.

“Students are really asking the question, ‘What am I getting for the tuition fees that I’m paying? And what kind of other services and opportunities are out there for me?’ I think that’s something we need to be in a position to give that kind of information,” says MacDonald.

Chimaobi Prosper is a full-time international student from Nigeria who is in his third year at MRU. The computer science student says he believes the university needs to cut down tuition, especially considering restrictive rules that limit the hours international students can work. He says working only 20 hours a week, paying fees, buying groceries and paying rent in Calgary can be overwhelmingly difficult.

“I pay like, twice, or triple than Canadian citizens. We go to the same classes, we get the same lectures but I do not see any extra value for the extra amount of school fees I pay here,”  Chimaobi says.

I personally relate to this. At 17, I juggled two jobs in my second year at MRU. I thought, “If only the fees were cheaper. If only I could get some help from the school.”

MacDonald says her department is introducing a new program in January to help address some of the problems faced by visiting students. The new student ambassador program will match new students with current MRU students who should be able to help them navigate.

MacDonald also announced students will get more help to sort out working visas which should help them more easily find jobs and earn more.

“We will have the person who is certified to give immigration information in terms of where students can work and how long they can work and so on,” MacDonald said.

Other resources are in place, including a peer-led support centre that seeks to help international students navigate. They can congregate to do their homework, have a cup of coffee, plan events, or strategize how best to deal with stress and concerns.

But the students I spoke to, including Chimaobi, say the centre isn’t accessible enough and doesn’t yet feel like a go-to place for meaningful help.

Mugenyi Banage, an international student from Zambia in his first year studying business administration at MRU, says he too feels unsupported.

Mugenyi Banage, an international student at Mount Royal University says that he feels the need to study really hard so that the high fees his parents pay do not go to waste. Mugenyi Banage, an international student at Mount Royal University says that he feels the need to study really hard so that the high fees his parents pay do not go to waste. Photo by Mariam Taiwo.

 “Dealing with finances are hard, we have to deal with exchange rates and also expenses in Canada are quite high as opposed to back home in Zambia. It would be nice if the school could offer loans for international students or even give jobs to international students just to ease their financial burdens,” Mugenyi says. 

Financial struggles exacerbate other problems

MacDonald recognizes that financial problems are made even worse by three major issues facing international students:

  • Culture shock
  • Homesickness
  • New learning approaches

MacDonald points out that these students face issues with culture shock because things are different for them here. They’re up against other groups of students who've known one another for years and have social structures in place. MacDonald says many students come from cultures that are very connected within large nuclear families and suddenly are on their own without family and friends to be able to talk through their concerns or worries, fears and hopes.

When I arrived in Calgary at 17, I really was on my own. Being an introvert did not make things much easier. I found it hard to communicate with people. I found it hard to ask for help and my first time trying to make friends was challenging because every time I found a “friend,” they stopped talking to me the next week because they already had their own group of friends.

MacDonald also talks about homesickness.

“Many many students come from cultures that are very connected within their families and large nuclear families and so on and suddenly you're on your own without those kind of supports and family to be able to just talk through your concerns or your worries or your fears or your excitement.”

I know this first-hand. In my first year, I was a loner with no friends and had no one to share my worries with. I remember struggling with depression as I had financial, academic and emotional problems, yet the scholarship and bursaries office told me I was not qualified for scholarships. At one point, I went to counselling. Although there have been many accounts of positive counselling experiences provided by MRU, I recall receiving no specific advice on how to survive. I called home everyday and cried endlessly to my mum. I admit, I only went to counselling once.

MacDonald says another huge challenge is different learning approaches. Students are often surprised by the amount of group work that takes place in MRU classrooms. Many students from other countries have only been exposed to teachers who stand at the front of the class and lecture, while students passively take notes.

Group projects, says MacDonald, “are a whole different approach.”

I couldn’t agree more. I got the shock of my life when I got to Calgary and discovered many assignments required group interaction among students with different schedules, abilities and understandings. I was also shocked by the technology requirements as assignments had to be submitted through a content management system rather than handed to my teachers in my notebook. It was a lot to get used to.

On a positive note

Mount Royal University is great because of its small class sizes. Small class sizes are a benefit to international students because it allows them develop a good relationship with their professors which in turn helps to build their grades and helps them develop a bond between the teacher and the learner.

Also, coming here teaches us to value our time, our life, our culture.  It builds character and we can go back home as more knowledgeable and well-rounded individuals.

It’s important to highlight some great support systems for international students here at MRU,  such as Student Learning Services where all students on campus receive help ranging from citation systems to essay writing.

There is also the free breakfast provided by the students’ association, which is another good support. Mugenyi Banage says the program has helped him to save money. He also applauds the peer mentorship program because he’s been paired with someone who can help him if he is struggling academically.  

In conclusion, if it is MRU’s plan to increase international student enrollment in the coming years, I would ask administrators to be more curious about the everyday problems experienced by international students.

What can they do to help international students right now before letting others in?

I think if the school finds answers to these questions, not only would the current international student experience be even more amazing, but it could also help to bring in more international students.

Mariam Taiwo | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Editor: Jan Kirstyn Lopez | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.