On February 16, the Centre for International Experience hosted a panel discussion featuring three international students, each hailing from a different majority Black country. The event, which was brought back for a second time after its success last year, is one of the many events organized by U of T to celebrate Black History Month. The event provided an opportunity to learn about the three speakers, hear their insights and experiences, and recognize the variety of experiences and viewpoints held by Black students at U of T.
Joys and challenges
Elvin Kauda, Isaiah Colthrust, and Obianuju Nwadike are from Malawi, Trinidad and Tobago, and Nigeria, respectively. Although they come from vastly different areas, the experiences and advice they shared held many commonalities.
One lesson that both Nwadike and Colthrust emphasized was to put effort into finding community. Nwadike, a recent UTSC graduate, found friends by participating in Christian religious groups. But Colthrust found a community in a more unlikely place.
“I met my group of people because, on a whim, I decided to go to yoga class at 6:00 am,” recounted the fourth-year UTM student. Colthrust also became a residence don, further engaging with the U of T community. “It’s been very fulfilling, and I can really look back on my university experience as being a positive experience not only for me, but for those other people who I’ve interacted with directly.”
Although the panellists had joyful moments, being Black and being international students posed particular challenges for their experiences. Although she’d seen instances of anti-Black racism on TV, Kauda, a fourth-year student in architecture at UTSG, stressed that the particular dynamics of race in Canada were entirely new to her. “Back home, there are other races but they’re in the minority,” Kauda said. “Even if these minorities do have their own kind of racist things, or they say something or do something that’s racist, it doesn’t really affect me.”
Colthrust described a similar experience coming from his home country. “[In Trinidad], it isn’t in the same dynamic that you will see here, where it’s one class or majority that’s expressing it onto the minority, but more intolerances between different groups who you could say are on a similar level.” However, others were available to help Colthrust adjust. “Fortunately I had people around me who were also international and others who have lived here for many, many years and who are Black, who could help me understand and almost mentor me in what it is to be Black in a Western country,” said Colthrust.
One part of adjusting to this dynamic was coming to grips with being seen as a Black person. “This whole idea of Blackness as a whole, or being Black, or identifying as Black — for obvious reasons, in the Western context, it is a lot more pronounced,” said Nwadike. “The Blackness part of it is just this label that has been, I guess, stamped on my forehead.”
Despite these factors, Nwadike pushed back against the idea that challenges should always be the focus of conversations about Black people. “When we’re thinking about people who were not born in Canada or have not lived in Canada for the longest time, we shouldn’t only think about — oh, because you’re coming, what barrier did you face, what challenges do you face,” said Nwadike. “Obviously those are things to consider in order to address the issue, but I don’t want that to be the only narrative that is held of us as Black people coming into this country.”
Kauda echoed this point. “We don’t struggle all the time. We also live normal lives,” she said.
Interspersed with descriptions of their experiences, the panellists offered advice for U of T students and recommendations for the administration. Nwadike’s advice for students who are Black international students is, “Make sure that you’re not walking around feeling like you’re already defeated.”
Kauda also stressed the importance of recognising one’s self worth. “For all people of colour as well, you’re more than just what you’ve been through. You’re so complex and amazing.”
To improve her mindset, and her mental health more broadly, Kauda accessed services from Health & Wellness, a decision she strongly recommends. “When you come from a country like Malawi, mental health issues aren’t really problems. People are like, well, there’s people starving,” she said. But through connecting with Health & Wellness and securing a therapist, Kauda was able to make positive changes. “I learned to embrace my mental health, take care of it, and know how to take care of it. And know that it’s also a big issue, and that it doesn’t undermine what’s happening back home, and it doesn’t mean I’m not grateful.”
This lesson is particularly important for racialized people, who generally experience more barriers to receiving help for mental illness. Professional help can help racialized students work through the specific pressures placed on them in Western contexts. “I’ve gotten opportunities and positions where I wondered, am I here because I’m a racial minority?” Colthrust shared.
But with help from a therapist, he was able to work through some of these thoughts and arrive at a different conclusion. “What I would tell myself coming in or anyone in a similar situation is, ‘You’re here for a reason. You deserve to be here and to try to be the best version of you that you can.’ ”
Additionally, the panellists recommended that students proactively take advantage of the career centre, grants, and the International Student Centre. But Kauda and Nwadike stressed that the university administration should do more. Because of her experience as an architecture student, Kauda called on the university to teach students about the accomplishments of diverse peoples. “There’s Black architects, why don’t we talk about them?” she questioned.
Kauda also stressed that Black people shouldn’t only be talked about — they direct learning. “I didn’t have any professors that looked like me, or even female professors.” Her experience reflects broader trends at U of T. According to the 2020 Report on Employment Equity, 7.2 per cent of appointed staff identify as Black, compared to 9 per cent of individuals in the Toronto area — the university has not yet published student demographic information publicly.
For her part, Nwadike urged the university to ensure international students had access to programming. “[U of T should make sure] either within the school that they’re providing the funding to support international students, if there’s that limitation, or they’re also sharing a good range of other activities or programs that everyone can benefit from,” she said. “It’s quite disheartening to be a student, and out of ten emails you get only two or three apply to you because you’re not Canadian or a [permanent resident].”
Beyond institutional changes, Colthrust had a message for all members of the U of T community. “There is this idea and dynamic in Canada, in the US, wherever you might be, that Black means a specific thing. And anyone who looks Black follows a specific breakdown of background or context or things you understand. But I and everybody else on this panel is a living example that, although we might look in what this context we call ‘Black,’ we have completely different aspects about us.”