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International students get warm U of T welcome at YYZ

Booths at Toronto Pearson International Airport staffed by students who speak many languages

Find many great stories of new student arrivals at U of T Airport Welcome's Instagram and Twitter accounts @yyzaws

Serena Zhang remembers how she felt the first time she flew into Toronto: excited to be starting an undergraduate program at U of T, but confused and lost at Pearson International Airport. It would take her a half hour to find a currency exchange before she could get a taxi.

“I just kept wandering,” Zhang says. “Since I was really shy and not confident in my English at that time, I was really scared to ask for help.”

That’s why the Chinese native is thrilled this year to be greeting new international students arriving at Pearson. She’s one of 21 students and recent grads staffing U of T welcome booths in Terminals 1 and 3 where U of T ambassadors speak in a dizzying array of languages, including Tagalog, Cantonese, Korean, Russian, Mandarin, French, Spanish, Arabic, Kazakh, Japanese, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali and Yoruba.

It’s part of a program that aims to welcome international students and make that first venture into a Canadian city less scary. New students can also make a free call or text home using Chatr or Similicious, thanks to an agreement with Rogers, to let loved ones know they’ve arrived safely.

Read more about Back to School at U of T.

“We wanted a safe, friendly place for students arriving after a long journey to get help with anything from lost luggage to how to get to campus,” said Lucy Fromowitz, Assistant Vice President of Student Life.

International students are not the only people to notice.

students taking selfie at booth

“The booths are attracting a variety of interest, from alumni and travellers interested in learning more about our programs, as well as new and returning students,” Fromowitz said. “This is also a great opportunity for people coming into Pearson from around the world learn more about U of T.”

The booths are already bustling from morning to night. Things are expected to pick up dramatically as undergraduates start arriving for orientation week.

So far questions have ranged from the basics – where to find a taxi and how much a cab should cost – to more inspiring inquiries about what sorts of clubs exist on campus. 

“Our students staffing the booths are our greatest ambassadors,” Fromowitz said. “They speak a variety of languages, represent our three campuses and are excited to answer questions and direct visitors to resources.”

students asking for directions at U of T airport welcomeStaffers include grad students, undergrads and new alumni. They hail from the Faculty of Arts & Science, Engineering, Kinesiology & Physical Education and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Various resources are available, including handouts from the Centre for International Experience, TTC maps and information from UP Train and Presto. 

Veronika Frolova, a recent grad working at one of the booths, says incoming students have been grateful.

“One student bound for a graduate program at U of T Mississauga came to the booth really stressed and full of questions after going through immigration,” Frolova said.

The staff advised her on where she could go for immigration needs and led her to the taxi stand, waiting until she got a cab. The student, who had flown in from Hong Kong, returned to the airport a few days later, just to say thank you.

students welcomed at boothFor Frolova, 21, who came as an international student from Kazakhstan four years ago, this is her opportunity to give back.

“I know what it was like to arrive in Toronto when you don’t know anyone here,” says Frolova. “It’s scary. It’s challenging. It’s stressful.

“I like the idea of the booth. If there’s someone to welcome you, that makes a huge difference. If that someone is smiling at you, waving at you, ready to share their experiences and talk about the resources that University of Toronto offers, it makes you feel more comfortable. It’s less scary.” 

As Zhang, 20, talks to incoming students, she keeps memories of that first day in Toronto front and centre. It helps her relate to the new students and address their needs.

“If the University of Toronto welcome booth was at the airport at that time, it would have helped me tremendously.”