A record-breaking number of students are leaving their home countries to pursue post-graduate degrees in institutions across Canada. According to the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, more than 712,000 international students studied in Canada in 2018. As students attend classes, they are legally allowed to work only up to 20 hours per week.
As one of the many international students in Canada, I have been intrigued with the issue of international students not being able to find relevant job opportunities. The more conversations I have with my peers, the more apparent it is that while international students hope to find jobs in their fields of interests that match their skills and qualifications, many end up working minimum wage jobs. It is not that international students do not have degrees; many have two or more. It certainly isn’t that international students do not have relevant work experience; many report more than five years of relevant professional experience. So why do many international students experience barriers in their quest to find jobs that are of interest to them?
I remember attending Here Magazine’s Employer Opportunity Exchange (EOE) and sitting at a table with an employer and another Master’s student. The student had 20 years of hotel management experience in India. She appeared confident and smart but unfortunately, she had not been able to get a hotel management position in Victoria. She expressed her dissatisfaction with the process to which the employer replied, “Start at the bottom and see if you can move up. The key is to just get in.” I recall wondering, “Why should she have to start from the ‘bottom’ if she has two decades of experience?” I knew right then and there that more conversations between international students and employers had to take place.
In light of this, the newly formed Royal Roads University Afro Heritage Association (RAHA) partnered with Here Magazine to host an event dubbed “EOE on Campus.” We had the objective of bringing students, mentors and employers together to discuss the barriers international students face in starting or continuing their careers as newcomers in Canada. The two-hour event was inspired by Here Magazine’s EOE event, a unique job fair that includes interviews and roundtable discussions on employment opportunities and what Canadian employers look for in jobseekers.
On September 26, 2019, RAHA and Here Magazine brought together students, staff, employers and community members at the Royal Roads University’s (RRU) Centre for Dialogue. Our intention was to spark conversations on some of the barriers international students face as they seek jobs that match their interests, skills and qualifications. For this event, we hand-picked four mentors who were asked to speak with students on their experiences as visible minority professionals and/or on their experiences working with international students.
We used a kitchen table format where participants can chose to sit at the table and directly engage in the conversations being held or sit in the outer circle and listen in. The mentors, Valeria Cortez, Audrey Wilkson, Boma Brown, and Alison Barr spoke on name bias, accent bias, racism, tokenism and the so-called Canadian work experience respectively, topics that several international students identify as barriers in employment opportunities.
During the event, it was clear that there was a lot of disappointment. The participants in attendance spoke of times their ideas at the workplace were not taken seriously, of times they had no choice but to take minimum wage jobs to make ends meet and of the overall discrimination they felt because they spoke differently or had a ‘complicated’ name. It seems peculiar that a name could be what separates a jobseeker from their dream job.
This is not to say that all international students face discrimination or that all employers discriminate. However, there should be more opportunities for employers and jobseekers to exchange information that can be relevant for both parties. I believe that the more we talk about our challenges, the more people will start to listen, be understanding and eventually eradicate their biases and assumptions.
One of the many reasons we formed RAHA was to collaborate with like-minded organizations such as Here Magazine to bring events such as EOE on Campus to RRU in an effort to discuss issues that are pertinent to international students. I believe that it is important to listen to students as they express how they feel discriminated against because of their names, accents, race, foreign degrees and much more.
We as students need to hear that we are not alone in the challenges we face and employers need to understand that foreign does not mean less competent. It is my hope that EOE on Campus paves the way for more discussions between students and employers. I hope that employers change their hiring practices to ensure that the many brilliant, innovative, and competent international students are not left out of employment opportunities because of where they happen to be born. These conversations are just the beginning and we hope they lead to policy change and a change in attitude towards those that are perceived as ‘different.’
Ruth Nakalyowa is the Founder & President of the Royal Roads University Afro-Heritage Association.
Photos by John-Evan Snow
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