'Bring the best out of you': Students from India on why they chose to study at U of T

photo of Sukhmani Khaira
Sukhmani Khaira, from Amritsar, says that, while the academics are rigorous, U of T provides students with the opportunity to chart their own course (all photos by Nick Iwanyshyn)

The University of Toronto is forging an ever deeper relationship with India as evidenced by plans to launch an urban research centre and entrepreneurship hub in the country of 1.3 billion in partnership with Tata Trusts.

At the same time, a growing number of Indian students are opting to study at U of T, with undergraduate enrolment soaring 280 per cent between 2014 and last year.

Why U of T?

The university’s global reputation coupled with Toronto’s welcoming atmosphere and diverse communities are oft-cited reasons.

To get a fuller picture of U of T’s Indian student experience, U of T News reporter Cansu Aydemir – an international student herself – asked students from India about their life on and off campus.

Here's what they said:

When Taanvi Malhotra was trying to decide where to attend university, she knew she wanted to study abroad to get an international experience.

The Bangalore student considered the United States, but in the end she chose Canada. 

“Canada had a better reputation than the U.S.,” Malhotra says. “I knew it would be better for my employment and my quality of life.”

Now in her third year, Malhotra studies digital enterprise management at U of T Mississauga. She says she considered all three campuses but chose Mississauga for three reasons: She wanted to be in the management program and she loved the campus’s modern architecture. Plus, she felt U of T Mississauga offered a smaller, more intimate university experience.

“You know everyone on campus, you are connected to everyone in some ways and it just makes you more comfortable,” she says. “I love the campus; I think it is very pretty. I love the nature, and I love the deer.”

While Malhotra didn’t anticipate being actively involved in campus life when she first arrived, she says the variety of options and opportunities made her want to step forward.

Last year, she was the public relations director for the Student Management Association and this year she has a work-study placement at the department of management as the engagement and digital media assistant.

Malhotra says her role mostly focuses on social media.

“I’m basically in charge of organizing the online reputation of the department of management, insuring that all social media accounts and all communications are successfully done,” she says.

Asked what she likes best about the school, she responds “the opportunities, the endless opportunities – you can do whatever you want if you just want it hard enough at U of T.”

Amritsar’s Sukhmani Khaira didn’t just want to find the right university – she also wanted to find the best country to help build her career.

“When it came to deciding between England, the United States or Canada the fact that Canada is an open and warmer community than other places was what attracted me here,” Khaira says.  “I did look at the fact that if I am going to stay in a country after my graduation for a year or two to gain some experience, that is much easier in Canada than in England.

“And Toronto is the New York of Canada; it is the best place if you want to work in the financial sector or business-related jobs.”

Now in her first year at U of T’s Victoria University on the downtown Toronto campus, Khaira is pursuing a double major in mathematics and economics.

What made her choose Victoria?

“It looks a lot like Hogwarts,” she says, referring to the fictional British school of magic from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Khaira says she chose U of T because of its high ranking. She was aware that she was going to join a competitive environment.

“A lot of people did tell me that U of T is a hard school and that people are going to be as good as me if not better,” she says. “It takes a lot of time to get used to the fact that if you are an above-average student back in high school you are an average student here, and you can’t just get straight As.”

While she feels the academic rigour, Khaira says U of T provides a variety of opportunities to its students.

“You can use U of T to bring the best out of you. I really like the degree flexibility at U of T – you can just mix and match your courses. That’s something they didn’t have back home.  You couldn’t double major in, let’s say, psychology and mathematics. But here you can.”

Khaira says she is getting used to living in a new country, and that the Indian community in the GTA is a big help.

“I really like the fact that Toronto is very close to Brampton and Mississauga, and that has a lot of Indian community; if I am really homesick I can go to the restaurants there or visit the places in Brampton – it kind of feels like home,” she says.

An interest in artificial intelligence and cyber security caused Shubhra Bedi to fix her gaze on North American universities.

She applied to both U.S. and Canadian schools but had her heart set on U of T.

“I went through a lot of research and I found that U of T is number one in Canada and among top 10 in the world for AI research,” she says.

Bedi is from Delhi – one of the most populated cities in the world – and she grew up in Doha, capital of Qatar.  She says a tour with her parents that included stops in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, also helped her to finalize her decision.

“I saw most parts of Canada. It was a very beautiful experience with mountains and snow and I loved Canada,” she says. 

Now in her first year of computer science, Bedi says she chose New College on the downtown Toronto campus because of its location, size, social scene and amenities.

“New College is the closest to all the classes, it is in the middle [of the downtown Toronto campus] so you can reach everywhere with a 10-minute walk – plus it has a very big community, so lot’s of events are happening continuously,” she says.

Bedi has joined a dance club, works as a house representative at New College, and plans to join U of T’s Model United Nations.

She says she made the right choice by coming to U of T.

“It has a very safe environment, lots of people from different backgrounds and various clubs,” she says.

But life isn’t always easy. Sometimes, Bedi says, the competitiveness of the computer science program can be overwhelming.  

“Computer science is one of the hardest programs to get into,” she says referring to the grade point average she required.  “That is the hard part.”

Living far away from home and family also makes her miss “the comfort of not worrying about anything,” she says. However, she says she enjoys being independent and “standing on her own feet.”

For future students, she recommends, “keep working right from the beginning, getting rid of distractions.

“You just have to stay in your path and make sure you achieve what you came here for.”

Avani Singh had always wanted to leave her home in Jaipur to attend university. Destination: North America.

But how to decide between the U.S. and Canada?

“In my year, which was 2016, the whole election thing was going on, so it was a tipping point towards Canada,” Singh says.

Rankings matter a lot to international students, she adds, and U of T’s high ranking among the world’s top universities was a big draw for her.

After a rigorous search, she settled on Victoria College at U of T’s Victoria University.

“Victoria suited me best because it has this artsy and inclusive vibe going on around it that I love. Everyone knows everyone and they all are very open-minded and generous and kind.”

Singh is now in her third year at Rotman Commerce specializing in management, with minors in economics and computer science.

She chose Rotman Commerce because it is “one of the most valued business programs in almost the entire North America,” she says.

“My classes are fabulous – very integrated, and hands-on. It is not just like learning the material and writing the exam. We have guest speakers, we get to interact with them, we actually go to sites and do studies – it is way better than I imagined and I am learning more than I imagined,” she says.

Looking back, Singh says certain opportunities helped smooth her transition to U of T life.

“I thought U of T would be this huge place where I would never find a community. But literally the moment I stepped in I became a part of Step Up, the international transition program that happens a week before university starts, which introduced me to my first group of friends and gave me the confidence that I needed.”

Now, Toronto feels more like home than her actual home, she says.

“U of T made Toronto into my house.”

Singh is doing a work-study placement at the Centre for Community Partnerships, with a focus on the Alternative Reading Week program, which aims to help communities in need.

“During Reading Week we take approximately 150 to 200 students and we send them out into communities out where they can help the community with whatever they need,” she says. “So it gives them a lot of experience and exposure to what Toronto is actually like and allows them to do something useful over the reading week.”

Singh, who comes from a desert area of India, says the weather has been challenging at times. But she says the warmth of the people she meets helps offset the cold.

“I remember the day I came: I had two suitcases with me and two strangers helped me on the street. That doesn’t happen in most parts of the world,” she says.

“Knowing how much war and everything is going on, Canada is like this beacon of friendship and peace and I really like it.”

She encourages other Indian students who are thinking about studying abroad to choose U of T.

“Canada is a beautiful country and it will definitely make you a better human being. I want them to know, it may feel scary, it may feel big, but it will feel like home after a while.”

A Lester B. Pearson International Scholarship brought Akshit Goyal to U of T from his home in the northern border city of Amritsar.

Now in his first year of studying computer science, Goyal says that, along with the prestigious scholarship, U of T’s global reputation for computer science and research opportunities were key factors in his decision to come to Toronto.

“The teaching I get here, the professors that I have here – I wouldn’t get that in any other college in the world,” he says.

Goyal chose Innis College on the downtown Toronto campus, primarily for its size.

“Innis is one of the smallest colleges at U of T,” he says. “When you are in a small community you see each and every person every day, you talk to them everyday – it becomes like a family.”

Goyal says he appreciates the great range of opportunities that the school provides and tries to get involved as much as possible.

“The professors give you opportunities – you get to do some research with them,” he says. “You don’t get that kind of opportunity at every school, you only get it at top schools like U of T.

“I really like the [Entrepreneurship] Hatchery in the engineering department. If you have a startup idea you can go to them and they will find you resources for that – they will help you.”

Goyal recently participated in an “Accelerator Weekend” competition organized by the Hatchery. His team, called Sparrow, won first prize.

“It was a two-day event held at Fields Institute Building where we had to come up with a startup idea and a pitch for that startup idea in the span of 28 hours,” he says.

Goyal is also a student ambassador at U of T, and a TEDxUofT volunteer.

“I’ve actually always watched TEDx videos online and I really liked the concept of it, but when I came here I never imagined that I would be a part of it,” he says.

Of course, he had his own questions before coming to a big school in a different country.

“At first when I saw the size of the university it was a bit scary,” he says. “Will I get lost here? Will I make friends?

Today, he says, he feels at home.

“I have friends who I believe will be life-long friends. Everyone is so supportive here.”

Goyal says he doesn’t miss home much – except for his mom’s food – and that there’s one “strange, but nice” thing he really likes about Canada.

“Here the pedestrians have the rights. If you want to cross the road the cars will stop; in India it is not possible. I was really confused at first, but this is something I really like about Canada,” he says.

He has a message for future students.

“Don’t be afraid. Trust me, there is this assumption that U of T is really hard – but nothing is hard if you want to do it.

“You can do it.”

International student Cansu Aydemir is an intern at U of T News. Originally from Turkey, she has lived in Toronto since 2012 and is now in her fourth year of studies at U of T where she is specializing in history and minoring in diaspora and transnational studies