Two years ago, Rachel Tian arrived in Canada from Beijing to start her first year at University of Toronto studying statistical science and mathematics in the Faculty of Arts & Science.
Like Tian, thousands of students arrive at U of T every year from all over the world, stepping foot in an unfamiliar country to begin a new stage in their academic career – a move that’s daunting even for those who grew up in Toronto.
That’s where organizations like the Centre for International Experience (CIE) come in. The programs offered by CIE, a part of the Division of Student Life, help international students transition both to life in Canada and life at U of T.
“We want to make sure we're translating all the things we have to offer so it makes sense to our international students,” says Holly Luffman, CIE’s acting director.
Learn about U of T Mississauga's International Education Centre and U of T Scarborough's International Student Centre
CIE’s programming ensures international students are meeting new people, but also plays a vital role in making them aware of the services available that might look different in their home countries.
This includes everything from helping students find a pharmacy to showing them how to access mental health services on campus, says Luffman.
“Just the magnitude of things that are offered here at the university can be substantially different,” she says.
During the first few weeks of the academic year, CIE and its counterparts at U of T Mississauga and U of T Scarborough hold events, host campus tours and organize workshops for international students, including a big welcome reception at the centre’s headquarters at Cumberland House.
“Quite literally the world comes to the University of Toronto Cumberland front yard and that's fantastic,” says Luffman, who encourages all staff, faculty and students to attend the event on Sept. 15.
The centre will also be taking students on tours of neighbourhoods near the downtown Toronto campus, including Kensington Market, the Annex and Chinatown, to acquaint them with the city and local shops and restaurants.
During her first year, Tian found out about one of CIE’s most unique offerings – the iConnect International Mentorship Program. Looking for an opportunity to improve her English, she signed up to be a mentee. At the time, she admits, she didn’t know what mentorship meant, but thought it might be a good way to learn the language and better understand Canadian culture.
The iConnect program now has 312 participants from all over the university – undergraduate and graduate, with mentors offering support and advice while also organizing events across the city from ice skating to an afternoon at Brickworks.
Through the program, Tian was able to meet students from Canada and all over the world while getting the assistance she needed for university life – inspiring her to become a mentor in her second year.
Now in third year, she’s become an iConnect leader, in charge of selecting and working with a group of mentors and mentees. This exposure to different people and cultures would be hard to find outside of CIE, says Tian.
“It's something I couldn’t learn simply from the classroom or the courses I'm taking,” she says.
Instead of pairing mentors with students who are of similar cultural or academic backgrounds, iConnect matches students based on common interests, says the program’s co-ordinator, Asim Ashraf.
“It's a way to get international students to meet people across difference,” he says.
For domestic students like Sophie Poppe Richter, who will be graduating in November with a double major in English and Spanish and a minor in Latin American studies, participating in iConnect is a chance to experience U of T’s rich global diversity without leaving the city.
“I really think that matching people from different cultures is important, especially in a city like Toronto where it's very multicultural and very much about learning from one another and meeting people from places sometimes you've never even heard of,” says Poppe Richter, who met Tian through iConnect a year ago and still keeps in touch.
Both domestic and international students can apply to be a mentor through iConnect, but applications are closed for this academic year.