Education: Your First Year at a Canadian University - Tools for Success

By Guylaine Spencer

You're thinking of applying to university in Canada, or perhaps you have already enrolled.

However, the thought of doing research, writing papers and (worst of all) speaking up or making a presentation in English in class makes your heart pound.

How can you find the tools to help you succeed?

Iris Mujica was in your situation not long ago. In her native Peru, Mujica had been an A+ student, but after immigrating to Canada she found herself struggling in university. She overcame her challenges and today she’s a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, where she conducts research, teaches nursing students and speaks at international conferences.

Tim Fleming is a Professional Practice Coordinator for the International Pharmacy Graduate Program, Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Toronto, which helps foreign-trained pharmacists to practice in Canadian pharmacy settings. Fleming sees students like Mujica (high-achievers suddenly facing challenges) in his classes all the time.

Mujica and Fleming have some great tips for university students.

Reading and writing

Reading and writing scholarly papers can be hard enough in your own language. In your second language, it’s even tougher and takes longer.

Mujica dealt with these challenges by using campus resources like the Centre for Student Development. She says, “Teaching assistants would go over my paper and give me tips on how I could shape my paper. I also asked my friends to read my papers to see if there were any problems in the writing.”

Fleming’s students get writing tutorials in their program and helpful vocabulary lists of medical terms. “Our students can take extra writing courses as well and have access to everything in the university, like counselling, guidance, libraries. A number of them use the programs geared to newcomers,” says Fleming.

Listening and speaking

Many university Student Development Offices also offer courses focused on speaking. These can be small group language workshops or one-on-one meetings with volunteers.

Mujica used an unusual tool. She joined Toastmasters, a club that helps people practice their public-speaking. “It helped me with my speaking ability, and my ability to evaluate and present in public.”

Fleming uses role-playing to help his students with speaking and listening. It’s all geared to their professional role, i.e. speaking with doctors and patients. “A lot of students come in fluent in English but they’ve never learned medical terms in English. We deal with that mostly in role-playing. We give feedback in the group and written feedback after. We give them the medical jargon so they can communicate with health professionals, and then we tell them you can’t use that with your patients because most of them aren’t going to understand it. So they have to learn two sets of language for the same concept: medical terms and patient-friendly language.”

Fleming says they also use role-playing to work on pronunciation and subtle things like body language, eye contact and personal space, which varies from culture to culture.

In small classes, students are expected to ask questions, offer comments and criticism, and even debate topics. This can feel scary. For Mujica, it took courage and organization: “I would read the materials that my peers would send ahead of time and I would formulate the questions based on what they wrote. So when I went to class I always had a question for each individual. I had very strong group members and they would tend to take over the discussion. My tutor helped me participate by saying I think Iris has a question. If I hadn’t gone to Toastmasters I would not have been able to face my fear of speaking in public.”

You might need to put in more time than other students too. Mujica explains: “Usually you discuss a topic the week before and you know what you’re going to discuss beforehand. We would maybe pick two topics to discuss. So I would read BOTH… so I covered both sides and was able to share my ideas.”

The emotional toll

High-achievers will often feel a blow to their egos when they find themselves struggling. Mujica says recovery takes time. “The more efficient you become, the more it brings your confidence back. Just being motivated and wanting to succeed got me through it. I used to tell myself: You can do this. You are able to do this in Spanish, so you can do it in English. I tried to minimize the impact the language barrier had on me.”

Loneliness can be a problem too. You can ease this by joining student groups on campus, maybe one for students from your culture or language group. If you’re feeling depressed, seek help through Student Counselling. Don’t suffer alone.

As the only immigrant in her class, Mujica felt different and isolated at first. However, she says,
“Something that I found very powerful was that I was able to share my perspective as an immigrant. I said this is how they do things in my country in terms of the health care system. My fellow students valued that a lot. That helped me contribute to the group in a way that others would not. So I brought something different to the group, they valued that input, as opposed to me feeling that I didn’t have anything to contribute. It felt good.”

“It was also empowering to know that I was studying in a second language and I was succeeding in it. I tell my students that learning in a second language is something others can’t do or haven’t even tried. As hard as it is, you are succeeding in that. That is a strength and something positive in your life.”

Key to success

All of these tools are helpful but Mujica says the ultimate key to success is you. “You need to find resources in your setting. You need to keep asking questions. Being motivated has to come from within you. It cannot come from other people. You have to help yourself succeed.”

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Guylaine Spencer

Guylaine Spencer is a freelance writer and the publisher of www.ontario-travel-secrets.com