When Naomi Chan moved from Hong Kong to Rosthern, Sask., for school, the only thing she knew about the town is that it’s small.
Chan, an international student at Rosthern Junior College (RJC), went from living in one of the world’s most densely populated metropolises, to living 40 minutes north of Saskatoon in a town of just 1,600 and attending a school with a student body of 75.
“I didn’t know anyone here before I moved to RJC, so it was kind of scary,” says Chan, who is in Grade 10. Christmas was difficult because she was not able to travel home to be with her family. “I was kind of homesick after the Christmas break.”
Still, for Chan and other international students, studying at RJC is an opportunity to take advantage of the school’s strong academic program and to improve their English. Each year, about 10 percent of RJC’s student body is made up of international students.
To help the other 90 percent become better acquainted with the countries these students are coming from, the school holds International Student Days a few times each semester. Each International Student Day celebrates a different country.
Last month, two days after Chinese New Year, the school celebrated Hong Kong Day—an opportunity to honour the school’s students from Hong Kong by hearing stories of their home country during chapel, wearing the colours of the Hong Kong flag, and eating a meal planned by the students that included a variety of food from their home.
Valerie White, admissions director at RJC, started International Student Days during the 2014-15 school year.
“A lot of families don’t know where Saskatchewan is,” White says. “They know Toronto and they know Vancouver, and that’s all. They don’t even know Rosthern exists. So for the students to be sent here and take that kind of risk . . . that’s pretty brave of families and students to do that. We thought we needed to honour them and find out about where they’re coming from, too.”
Alexa Nicolle, a Grade 12 student who grew up in Rosthern, looks forward to International Student Days. “Everyone gets excited about it,” she says. “We get dressed up, so everyone’s really happy to learn in that atmosphere.”
Nicolle’s favourite part of International Student Days is the food. Chan and her fellow students from Hong Kong got to choose the menu last month, and were excited to see the cafeteria serve sticky rice, stir fry, spring rolls, dumplings and a cold dessert soup made with sweet potato and ginger.
Beyond the food, the celebrations have helped Nicolle empathize with the school’s international students, who have come from places that include Mexico, El Salvador, Germany, Switzerland, Malaysia and Kayin State in Burma.
“It gets us to understand the culture shock that they go through a little bit more, because most of us don’t know what it’s like to move that far from what you know,” Nicolle says.
Fostering that sort of understanding is what International Student Days are all about, says White. She recalls celebrating Mexico Day last year and hearing one student talk about how his home is much more than what is portrayed on television and in the movies.
“International Student Days give our students an opportunity to see past the stereotypes we fall into, and give them a glimpse into different places that they may or may not go to,” White says. “It also gives our international students an opportunity to boast a little and show off from their home.”
While she was homesick at Christmas, Chan is glad she came to RJC to study. The class sizes are significantly smaller than they were at home, and the academics are rigorous without putting as much pressure on students as in Hong Kong.
“It’s fun to study here,” Chan says.
RJC’s next International Student Day is scheduled for April 6 and will celebrate a student from the Karen people who was born and raised in a refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Burma. The student came to Rosthern as a refugee.
White sees great value in the events, and she hopes they continue for a long time.
“It’s not just about our international students coming to Canada to learn the English language and Canadian culture, but it’s about the sharing of their culture as well,” she says. “We learn from each other. I think that makes a really enriching program for all of our students.”