November 27, 2017
By: Leslie Claire Amminson

Sonja Knutson, of Memorial University’s Internationalization Office, wrote “We support international students and post-docs, their spouses and their children. We provide immigration advising and help students obtain their MCP cards; we help them as they first arrive with housing and finding their way around; and we have highly trained peer mentors and Saturday ESL classes. Students that are struggling with language or other issues (academic, financial, personal, etc) come to our office for advice and we refer them to the help they need, whether ESL support, writing support, academic advising, counselling, and so on.”

But are there enough resources at MUN to provide international students with the support they need? That’s what some students and staff are wondering.

Emma Lang, a Graduate Student who is a senior mentor in the MUN mentor program offered through the Internationalization Office, emphasized that budget cuts to the Internationalization Office have caused the staff to struggle with providing students with the resources they need. In the past, students had the option of being greeted at the airport, and when they arrived they were able to meet with an advisor one-on-one to discuss their needs. Now, students meet in groups rather than in a private setting, and the airport pick-up service no longer exists.

Knutson explained the reasons for the service cuts, stating “Our range of programming has increased through the years, as we grew from around 300 students (when I first began the programs for the International office) to 3000 […] Times have changed since I first began the airport greeter program in 2001, today we do not greet all new arrivals simply because there are between 400 – 500 students that arrive over a two week period. We use technology more efficiently now, providing a series of pre-arrival webinars to new arrivals, and doing small group orientation when they arrive. We work closely with the City of St John’s and the Airport authority to ensure students are supported if they arrive and are unsure of what to do. Our airport is far more accessible now – students can use public transportation, access cash and walk to temporary accommodations. But we still always have our student staff at the airport to help students who arrive on flights through the middle of the night when the Airport welcome booth is closed”.

Lang stressed that the problem does not lie within the dedication or the ability of the staff of the Internationalization Office, but rather with their lack of resources. “They’ve had a decrease in budget, a decreasing number of staff and staff hours and an increasing number of students, who are primarily coming from non-English speaking countries” she said.

Knutson acknowledged the budget cuts, but did not express that the Office was struggling, stating, “The office did undergo budget reductions along with the rest of the university, but was able to mitigate impacts on our student supports and maintain the same number of student advising staff”.

“Internationalization continues to have great support from the university,” she added.

But others are concerned about whether or not this is true, especially with regard to English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Lang expressed, “Students aren’t getting the help they need. If they don’t have those core supports, and those supports aren’t funded enough to do the jobs they need to do, then we can’t be accepting as many international students”.

When asked if she thought MUN provided adequate support for ESL students, Lang replied “Not in a million years”.

Lang brought up the fact that the Writing Centre tends to be the biggest support for ESL students. She highlighted that language barriers sometimes cause students to wonder if they are doing poorly because they do not understand the content or because they are having difficulty grasping the language. “That goes back to needing the Writing Centre and needing it to be supported”, she added.

Virginia Ryan is the Director of the Writing Centre, which she states “assists students with their academic writing, whether they’ve got something written or the problem is that they’re having difficulty getting started”.

“At the graduate level” Ryan explained, “I’d say easily 75-80 percent if not more of our intake are English as a Second Language students. At the undergraduate level, I would not say the majority of students who come here are international or ESL, however I think that if it is a student whose second language is English, the frequency of the times they come to see us is probably way higher than that of their Canadian counterparts”.

The Writing Centre is a support that English as a Second Language students lean heavily on, but may not be able to accommodate all the needs of those students. “I think that a lot of the ESL students who come to us would benefit a great deal if they had more assistance either before or while they’re coming to us […] we are not an ESL instruction centre” Ryan expressed.

Jacqueline Wong, a student from Hong Kong who has been living in St. John’s since 2014, agrees. “They [the tutors] are native speakers so they don’t know how we think while we’re writing”. She added that the Writing Centre is also limited in terms of space and tutor availability. She suggested the addition of a tutoring service that caters exclusively to ESL students. “We work more because of the language,” she explained. Wong does not attend the Saturday ESL classes provided by the Internationalization Office because she feels they focus more on conversational English, rather than on academic writing.

Like Lang, Ryan wondered if the University is admitting too many students who are having trouble dealing with language barriers. “I feel like we’re doing a disservice to students by admitting them if they can’t cope with the material” she said, “and I see an awful lot of students here who don’t seem to be able to cope”.

Ryan expressed the need for more resources at the Writing Centre: “Back in 2013, we were asked to do a self-study on whether more resources were needed, and yes we indicated that more resources were needed for these students and nothing ever came of it.” Ryan added that the university itself also conducted a study on the resources provided for ESL students, and that the results of that study also recommended that the Writing Centre have more resources. Once again, however, the demand was not met.

“Please, world, don’t give us another study,” she said. “The problem is here and it needs to be dealt with”.