“Live and learn in the heart of Canada’s most vibrant city.”
“Discover and deepen your passions.”
“Explore unique learning options for your first year.”
These are phrases an international student would typically read in a university’s viewbook before deciding which school to apply to in their last year of high school.
One may wonder how international students gather information and decide which overseas university to go to. Is it from hearsay, world rankings, or through promotional campaigns done by universities who could afford it?
And, if they only know about the university through a third party, are they satisfied with their choice when they actually arrive on campus?
Although not coming straight from her hometown in Southern China, (she spent three years at a high school in Edmonton, Alberta), Fangky Peng has never been to the University of Toronto before she applied to the well-known school.
“I looked at a lot of the promotional brochures,” she said. “U of T has a lot. They emailed me the information when I was in high school back in Edmonton. As an international student, my parents are not here and I was left to make the decision on my own.”
When asked about whether the school lives up to her expectations, she responded that she is happy with the campus life, but feels that she was misinformed about academic life at U of T.
“It is more stressful and there is more of a workload than what I thought,” she said. “It is much harder than what the pamphlets say. The pamphlet’s say that you can enjoy a good amount of campus life while also being able to devote the same amount of time to work. But in reality, f you want higher marks, you need to devote more time to your courses and sacrifice your social life.
She chose U of T, because like a lot of others, she has heard about the university being one of the best in the world. However, she does not feel that the school offered a lot of help for her when she needed it.
“I don’t feel that I get enough help from the counselors and advisors on campus,” she said. “I don’t feel like they’re actually there for me. Every time I go to them, they just say, ‘I have nothing that I could do to help.’ When I ask them what I can do to improve, they just say, ‘I cannot do anything about it.’ “
She also pointed out a specific way of marking students’ papers at U of T: the school is rumored to have a 20% failing grade, and professors are advised to keep the average marks as low as possible. The result is that one test might be really easy, and the next test might be really hard to keep the average around 60% for every course at U of T.
“It is not a good rule because I might get higher marks at another university,” she said. “It does not mean that I am getting poorer results than students from other schools, it’s just because universities deal with marks differently.”
If she had the opportunity to choose again, would she still choose U of T? Peng responded that she would go to McGill University instead, because she feels that she would be more academically satisfied there.
“Before I came here, I researched the Internet about the schools that I could go to, and I chose Seneca because it was affordable,” she said.
She read about the issues that international students have to face on various websites before she arrived to prepare herself. However, like Peng, she was also overwhelmed by the academic aspect of her school life.
“There is a very short period of time for you to learn everything about animation,” she said. “There is a lot of information you have to learn in one year.”
In fact, academic life is what a lot of international students are most concerned about when they arrive at the university they chose.
“My program requires more self-discipline than what is reflected in the university’s promotional materials,” said Hae-in Lee, a second year Illustration student at Ontario’s College of Art and Design University (OCAD U).
“We have less classes compared to other universities, I was hoping that they would teach us more skills, but they don’t.”
In response to Lee’s comments, Donald Kelly, Recruitment Officer at OCAD U, maintained that the university is an institution with high-quality studios dedicated to arts and design.
“Campus life at OCAD U is probably different than what other people expect at a traditional university,” he said. “Everyone is here for their creative endeavors, and this brings people close together.”
At University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus (UTSC), first year co-op management student Meng Qiao Mayer Fang from Tianjin in Northern China echoes Lee’s feelings of not getting the most out of his classes.
“There are a few professors who do not really teach,” he said. “You need to learn by yourself. If I’m just learning by looking at websites online then I don’t need to go to university. I could just read a book on my own. ”
He emphasized that when applying to a university, he does not pay attention to the buildings or campus residences, but he only focuses on the quality of learning at the school.
He chose U of T because of its ranking and reputation, he believes that it is easier to get a better job if he graduates from a university with a good global ranking.
“International students want schools of the highest rank,” responded Jack Martin, Director of Business Development and International Programs at UTSC. “They want a good student life experience and they might go on to advance themselves, get study permits where they are allowed to work in Canada for at least three years. International students find it quite useful to develop careers here.”
He also mentioned that he thinks international students understand that if they want to do well, they have to be open to guidance at the university. He listed a few different mediums the school uses to try to reach out to international students: brochures, websites and presentations.
Martin is in charge of recruiting international students in China through Green Path, a program launched in 2005 when students from top Chinese high schools are admitted to UTSC in early June each year. Participants take English classes and attend field trips in the summer to prepare them for undergraduate life in the fall.
“Green Path students are a tightly knit group,” Martin said. “This also has to do with the more intimate environment at U of T’s Scarborough campus. Students build closer relationships.”
He clarified that international fees are consistent for all students and there is no discount for Chinese students enrolled in the Green Path program.
Sarah Chu, from Shenzhen came to UTSC in June 2011 through Green Path because she heard of the university’s good reputation, but found her undergraduate experience so far to not be what she expected.
“There are too many Chinese people,” she complained. “Because there is an association of Green Path students, most of the time we just stick with each other. I think that I should meet more people, not just from Green Path. I am in the social science and arts faculty which is already better, I know some management students and their courses are full of Chinese.”
Chu pointed out that the two most important factors she looks for when applying to a university are its study environment and the people of the school.
When asked if she would join Green Path if she had another chance to start over, she said she would apply to universities in the United States and Britain instead because she feels there would be less Chinese people there.
Janet Hurd, Director of Student Recruitment at the University of Toronto agreed that the school’s ranking among the world’s top 20 universities does remain an important component to attract international students to come to this school every year.
“Our immediate strategy is to establish relationships with the top [high] schools in the world,” she explained. “We do that by visiting them and welcoming their students to come to U of T. It is all about relationship building.”
She also pointed out that U of T is using social media to attract overseas students. She said the university’s website is geared towards prospective students, especially the site ‘join.utoronto.ca’ has access to all information a student interested in U of T would want to know. Another site ‘discover.utoronto.ca’ introduces campus student life and links to clubs and organizations at U of T.
Hurd acknowledged that weather is an important consideration for international students, where a lot of them come from countries with tropical climates. However, she agreed that the university’s promotional viewbooks consisted mainly of photos taken on bright sunny summer days.
“We try to be very honest in our promotional materials,” said Michelle Beaton, the Manager of International Recruitment at Ryerson University. “Our materials are quite factual with mainly programme information, there is not much room for fluff.”
She also mentioned distributing extra material when visiting high schools in other countries.
“For students that are not familiar about the city of Toronto, we give them more information and try to attract them by knowing our audience. For example, if we know there’s a retail boom in India, we try to follow this trend and emphasize on promoting our Retail Management degree while we’re there.”
She explained that Ryerson’s viewbook does not have any photos of the campus in winter because there is not a lot of room for pictures (even though there were a couple of pictures on every single page of the 132-page booklet).
“The colours need to be brighter for the book,” Beaton said. “Pictures when it’s snowing or raining are not very attractive.”
But snowing or rainy days happen all the time in the city of Toronto (where snowfall can happen any time from November till mid-April).
Should universities continue to camouflage campus life with bright, colourful posed pictures or should they fill their viewbooks with more genuine information about battling the winter or the time and dedication needed to fulfill academic requirements?
Judging from the international students’ responses in this article, we guess they wouldn’t mind a bit more straightforwardness in the materials they read before dedicating four years to their post-secondary education in a foreign city.