On January 9, U of T hosted a panel on international students’ success and mental health. The panel promoted the launch of U of T’s International Strategic Plan (TISP), a collection of commitments that will guide U of T’s global approach between now and 2027. However, the plan received criticism from the UTSU for failing to adequately support international students.

The International Strategic Plan 

In December 2022, the office of the Vice President, International released the most recent TISP, a five-year plan to support learning abroad, increase diversity on campus, partner with global businesses and universities, and strengthen the university’s presence on the world stage. The plan reflected eight months of consultation with faculty, staff, and students. 

The TISP focuses on three dimensions — global learning, global reach, and global impact — and includes 10 strategic objectives. According to the plan, U of T is committing to increase the number of countries of citizenship represented among students. During the 2021–2022 academic year, the university represented students from 170 different countries and regions.

According to the plan, U of T also hopes that, by 2027, two out of five undergraduate students will participate in one or more learning abroad experiences during their undergrad; in comparison, only 3.9 per cent of undergraduates studied abroad in 2019–2020. The university specifically aims to increase participation in learning abroad for students of “diverse backgrounds,” committing to a 10 per cent increase each year of the plan. They plan to drive these increases by supplementing financial aid, advertising, and expanding partnerships with universities in the global south. 

Additionally, the TISP includes commitments intended to support international students, who made up 28 per cent of U of T’s student body in 2021–2022. By the 2023–2024 school year, U of T pledges to devote six per cent of international tuition to financial awards for international students. The university also hopes to increase international student participation in paid work-study positions from 2.9 per cent in 2022 to six per cent in 2027.

The panel 

U of T’s virtual panel on international student success drew over 150 attendees. “International students’ success is a very complex topic because it has many facets,” said Thaisa Tylinski Sant’Ana, a panelist and fourth year UTM student from Brazil specializing in biotechnology. “As international students, we’re not only facing the challenges and the learnings of navigating the university experience, but we’re also understanding and adapting to what it means to exist and succeed in a country that is not your home.” 

Many such difficulties affect international students’ mental health. Sandy Welsh, vice-provost, students, highlighted the “additional stressors” faced by international students, who often lack local family, face financial burdens, and fear losing legal status in Canada. 

According to Alexie Tcheuyap, head of international student experience and the panel’s facilitator, 33 per cent of international graduate students reported that they were concerned about their ability to maintain good mental health. Data from Navi, U of T’s campus mental health wayfinder, indicates that international students primarily ask for help dealing with anxiety, homesickness, and stress.

Some international students also face difficulties identifying when to seek help. “Our international students are coming from parts of the world where mental health may not be something that is talked about and/or certain services may not even be available,” said Welsh. Even if a student decides to seek help and manages to navigate the Canadian and university health-care systems, Welsh explained that language and cultural barriers can limit the effectiveness of counseling.

Welsh highlighted the importance of peer support programs. According to Welsh, peer mentors can often better navigate cultural barriers and guide students to other resources. Welsh revealed that U of T, in collaboration with another GTA university, decided to submit a proposal asking the provincial government to fund a peer support program for international students.

In the past few years, U of T took additional steps to support international students’ mental health. These steps include increasing the tools available on Navi, providing same day appointments with mental health counseling Monday through Friday, and expanding access to the My Student Support Program so students outside and inside of Canada can talk with professionally trained counselors in over 146 languages.

Welsh explained that international and domestic students who live in residence tend to feel more comfortable transitioning to university: “Building residences may not seem about mental health, but it’s why, across our three campuses, we’re focused on building our on campus residence capacity.” 

Currently, U of T residences are in high demand, leaving thousands on waitlists and driving U of T to offer students money in exchange for withdrawing their housing applications

The panel also discussed how U of T could better connect international students to resources. Sant’Ana explained that, in her first few weeks at U of T, she felt like she was “bombarded” with information, much of which she didn’t absorb. She suggested that U of T constantly remind students about supports by setting up in spaces where students tend to congregate, as opposed to simply sending emails. 

Sant’Ana also highlighted the need to expand the definition of international student. “Sometimes being international is defined simply by your immigration status or by the tuition fees that you’re paying, and it’s really not that clear cut,” said Sant’Ana. She noted that she has many friends who are Canadian citizens and pay domestic tuition, but have spent most of their life abroad. “They may be facing very similar challenges that international students — as defined by our immigration status or tuition fees — might be facing.” 

Student reactions

In an email to The Varsity, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) President’s team welcomed the TISP’s efforts to expand learning abroad opportunities for diverse students. However, the team expressed concerns about the lack of financial aid available to international students, who pay roughly 10 times the tuition of their domestic Ontario resident counterparts. The UTSU called on the university to develop a separate plan specifically aimed at supporting international students.

The UTSU team also expressed concerns about U of T’s plans to recruit more international students, since the university has a “financial incentive” to increase enrollment among international students. “Many international students have claimed that Canadian university recruiters provided them with inaccurate or idealistic information,” wrote the team. 

In an email to The Varsity, Joseph Wong, Vice President, International, indicated that U of T awarded International Scholar Awards to more than 10 per cent of the international students offered admission for fall 2022, a $53.04 million commitment. In the same year, U of T contributed $11.10 million towards Lester B. Pearson Scholarships.

Lester B. Pearson Scholarships are awarded to around 37 international students who are eligible through first-entry undergraduate programs. The scholarships cover the student’s tuition and books, as well as incidental fees and four years of living in residence. 

Wong wrote that U of T’s share of international students is slated to increase by less than one percentage point between 2021–2022 and 2025–2026. They refuted claims that university recruiters provided international students with inaccurate information, writing, “Unlike some private career colleges and other institutions in Canada and elsewhere, the University of Toronto does not contract with third-party recruitment agents or agencies. U of T staff lead student recruitment and provide a realistic understanding of the opportunities of studying at U of T and the challenges of learning abroad.”

In an interview with The Varsity, Rohina Kumar — co-president of the U of T Mental Health Student Association and a fourth year international student from Dubai specializing in psychology — said that she receives student feedback on the university’s mental health services.

“The general consensus is that people are a big fan of the peer support service that they offer, especially in person,” said Kumar. She noted that the informal environment and drop in format make peer counseling more accessible for many students. 

However, Kumar pointed out that there are limits to what peer counseling can accomplish. “There’s no consistency in terms of the person you’re meeting. What if you’re building rapport with the person providing the service and the next day, it’s a different person, and you feel the need to start over again,” she said. Overall, Kumar classified peer support as an immediate distress response. “Obviously, it’s not a long term service,” she said.

Kumar believes that, although U of T has put in place numerous effective supports for international students, there are additional steps that the university should take. She pointed out the need to increase cultural competency in immediate distress support. She also suggested that U of T offer support groups for international students and use different marketing strategies to make services more appealing to international students, particularly those coming from contexts where mental health is highly stigmatized.