Getting help when you’re 10,000 kilometres away from home

Ji-Ho stands at the opening of the security gate at Seoul’s Incheon Airport.  He puts his arm around his mother’s shoulders as she wipes her eyes.  His father shakes his hand and turns away quickly to hide his own tears. Ji-Ho clutches his passport and phone and slowly moves toward the gate. At 18 years old, he is about to leave home for the very first time and travel over 10,000 kilometres to study in another country.

This fall, Ji-Ho’s departure will have played out thousands of times in airports around the world.

The era of Post Secondary Education (PSE) internationalization is at its apex and is not slowing down, complete with oversized down parkas bursting out of luggage and laptop bags dangling off of shoulders.  
Ji-Ho is joining over 300,000 international students studying at a Canadian PSE institution this fall, many of them leaving their friends and families for the first time. Although ambitious and brave, Ji-Ho’s educational adventure in Canada will be more challenging than he could have ever imagined.
It doesn’t take long before he becomes wary of his English skills, the speed at which his professors and classmates speak, or the hours he spends dissecting the paragraphs in his textbooks. His first writing assignment is returned with a failing mark.
Like many students from South East Asia, Ji-Ho expected more true and false quizzes, more memorization of facts and figures, more prescriptive learning. He wasn’t prepared to defend his ideas, argue, or work in groups. He has yet to befriend a Canadian. He spends most nights in his dorm room streaming Korean television on his laptop. As the weeks pass, Ji-Ho finds it hard to get out of bed and has missed several classes. He feels lonely, depressed and tired, trapped in a cycle which makes him feel hopeless.
Since Ji-Ho comes from a culture where putting on a brave face is a valuable life skill, he presses on silently for as long as he can. He cannot and will not let his parents know of his failed assignment, his ineffective English skills, or his isolation.  To let his parents glimpse into his struggles would be the ultimate shame. He must appear confident and strong, or risk losing face - a thought too terrible to bear.

At the heart of Ji-Ho’s struggle is a larger institutional crisis.

Mental health issues have been identified as the number one impediment to improving retention rates of students in university and college. In the highly competitive PSE landscape, the effectiveness with which we identify and begin to help students such as Ji-Ho becomes vital to our overall institutional success. Not only that, 95 per cent of Canadian universities say that internationalization is a primary goal of their strategic planning, with the majority making it a top five priority.
With more than 450,000 international students set to fill Canadian campuses in the next decade, ensuring they thrive must become a top priority of our student services.
Meanwhile, studies show that South Korean students suffer from anxiety and depression at twice the rate of domestic students, while Chinese students look for counselling help 50 per cent less than their Canadian counterparts due to heightened concerns over stigma.
Yet only 17 per cent of campus counselling centres take steps to reach the international student population. International students are expected to navigate their personal and academic issues under the same student service umbrella as domestic students, which means they are not often targeted as having unique mental health needs and/or treatment options.

One company decided to create an extended safety net for students like Ji-Ho.

In 2015,, Canada’s leading health insurance provider for international students, teamed up with the world’s largest counselling service company, Morneau Shepell, to help institutions deliver support in a modern way.
The ground-breaking SAFE program targets international students who wouldn’t normally seek help through normal channels. It’s designed to work with existing on-campus services to support students in their native language and culture via chat, phone, email, video conference or in person, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We knew that international students face their toughest mental health challenges on evenings and weekends, when counselling offices at school are closed,” says Keith Segal, president of International Insurance. “And we knew that international students are always connected with friends and family through their smartphones and computers. So it made sense to provide access to counsellors through a number of digital platforms.”
Ji-Ho reaches his breaking point after a late fall blizzard on a Saturday night. Like many international students across Canada he finds the severe weather overwhelming. He lies on his back looking at pictures of his family on his phone when he accidentally swipes over the SAFE app. He is surprised to find that it is offered in Korean and clicks on the icon.
Within minutes, Ji-Ho is connected with a Korean speaking counsellor who is able to assess the severity of Ji-Ho’s situation.  The counsellor asks questions that make Ji-Ho feel comfortable and safe and assures Ji-Ho that the sessions are confidential.  After several conversations by phone and chat, the counsellor helps Ji-Ho develop a strategy to manage his workload and provides him with the tools to address his feelings of homesickness, isolation and depression.

Ji-Ho’s experience is just one of many ways in which international students can fall through the cracks while studying abroad.

Communicating with students through mediums they are comfortable with is one of the reasons why SAFE is proving to be so successful.
Today, over 25 PSE institutions in Canada have incorporated SAFE into their Student Services programs to help fill in the gaps and help students when they are most at risk - on weekends and after hours - and in their native languages.
Ryerson University is one of the many institutions that has integrated the SAFE program.  “Many challenges that face international students can lead to a sense of disorientation, loneliness, anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns,” says Dr. Gerd Hauck, the Director of Ryerson’s ESL Foundation Program.  Hauk is “confident that any international student in crisis will benefit enormously from the SAFE program.”
Three weeks later Ji-Ho is still in touch with his SAFE counsellor on a regular basis, but now they chat for only a few minutes at a time. He has since been assigned a tutor on campus to help him with his courses and has met with other foreign students through the International Centre.  He makes an effort to sleep eight hours a night, which he learned was having a big impact on his ability to cope during the day.
Ji-Ho says goodbye to the counsellor and looks out the window.  It’s snowing again but he gets out of bed and puts on his parka, boots, toque and mittens. He treks through the quad to where a group of international students are making snowmen, feeling hopeful and empowered that he asked for help - one of many new and positive cultural experiences he will have in Canada.
Get in touch with Wendy Mohammed (416.710.2309), SAFE Project Lead, to learn more about how you can better support your international students today.


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