For a small sector of UPEI students, the university experience is a double whammy.
Not only are visiting students from all over the world studying to earn their degree, they are also learning about life and culture in a foreign land and, in many cases, a new language.
This past semester, UPEI had a record number of exchange and international program students: 31 from the university’s regular exchange partners in places such as Australia, China and Korea and 24 from Egypt, Brazil, Barbados, Chile and Jamaica under specialized programs.
“We had triple the amount of visiting students this year, compared to other years,” says Sherilyn Acorn-LeClair, who is the international partnerships co-ordinator at UPEI’s international relations office.
This increase in international attendance is the result of UPEI utilizing various government programs, both Canadian and abroad.
The Brazilian government, for example, has put out a Science Without Borders Program scholarship for their students to come, fully funded, to universities in Canada and around the world for two semesters followed by a research-oriented activity.
“Last semester we had seven Brazilian students on campus — and that was strictly for the faculty of science — which is a pretty good number for UPEI,” says Acorn-LeClair.
A number of students from Chile and Jamaica are also at UPEI under the Emerging Leaders of the Americas Program through which they pay their own tuition and then receive a scholarship from the Canadian government that covers their general cost of living.
Students in the UPEI International Exchange Program come for a semester or an academic year and pay their tuition at their home school, but they are responsible for living costs while here, which is the same for UPEI students in exchange programs at universities that are in partnership with UPEI.
“We’re up above 40 (partner institutions) now in more than 20 countries, and it’s increasing all the time,” says Acorn-LeClair.
“The more partnerships that we create, not only the more opportunities that we’re creating for our students to study aboard, but the more we’ll receive from those partner schools as well. So it’s a benefit to all.
“And it’s fun, too, because we learn so much about other cultures that we would never have an opportunity to learn about.”
Another recent project involved 11 visiting PhD students from Egypt who were on campus last semester through the Ain Shams University Visiting PhD Student Program to work with mentors in all faculties on research and more.
One of those is Rasha Kamal, who is an assistant lecturer in the faculty of education at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt. The opportunity to study English at a university on the other side of the world and a full immersion into an English-speaking environment was a perfect fit for her.
“This is not my language (ability) when I came here three months ago. I didn’t speak at length like this and I couldn’t communicate with people in this way,” she says.
“So while I am here I am communicating with colleagues in the classes, my professors, people in the library, bus drivers. Every place I improve my language.”
The UPEI library resources, the electronic ones in particular, were a goldmine for Kamal.
“Yesterday only I downloaded more than 100 articles. I don’t have this in my country,” says Kamal, who when at home has to drive three hours to access library services, which she could only do once a week.
“So you can’t finish your PhD in such difficult (circumstances). Here we have a lot of facilities.”
Studying actual teaching methods at UPEI was also part of Kamal’s learning package.
“We are going to be professors in our universities, so here we learn how to teach in an active way. We in our department don’t teach using PowerPoint presentations or Smart Boards, for example. We are all the time lecturing . . . ,” she says.
Kamal was thrilled to discover how to use things like movies and discussion groups to teach in a more active and practical way.
She practised some of these methods by teaching a few classes at UPEI and was rewarded with a hearty applause from students at the end.
“Now when I go back home I have self-confidence to teach, to speak English, to apply all the methods of teaching to my students and then they will adapt them in their schools when they become teachers,” Kamal says.
“(The end result will be that) our children will speak English well, so we can improve the education in our country.”
Esteban Bustamente of Chile was at UPEI last semester through the Emerging Leaders of the Americas Program.
This soon-to-be English language teacher’s learning experience was two-fold in that he not only learned his courses’ subject matter, but the fact that they were in English meant that it was a proficiency enhancing experience.
“Here they teach more in a useful way; in my country when they teach it it’s more grammar focused, that’s why students don’t like it because you’re just focused on the structures,” Bustamente says.
“Maybe you got the message right, but the grammar was not good, so you’re wrong . . . . I disagree with that.
“I think the most important thing when you learn a language is the confidence. You feel like speaking it. So when they’re not (always) correcting you and you’re just speaking, trying to convey the messages I think you learn way better. I hope not to make that mistake in my classroom.”
Because Bustamente rented a room off campus he experienced life in the overall community as well.
“I like to see new faces and learn about different things or learn some features about different cultures. I have a Chinese friend here (at UPEI) and it was really interesting to see that she always asked you, instead of ‘How are you?’ she would ask ‘Did you have your lunch?’ They are very caring about if you ate or not. If you didn’t eat they bring you something,” he says.
“Or sometimes here the expressions of the Canadians. Some vocabulary or expressions that they use, like if they didn’t understand something they say, ‘Whatzat?’ “
Bustamente was impressed with the attention paid to the learning environment at UPEI.
“They focus a lot on an inclusive classroom, not to treat people differently. No matter if someone has disabilities or problems you cannot classify them in a different category or labeling them. You know that this person has potential,” he says. “(It was also wonderful) to see all the people from different places coming and going. They’re sharing their experiences and you’re sharing your experiences to them; that kind of exchange. There are some things that cannot be learned in a classroom. This place helps a lot of people to learn through everyday life situations. So that’s what I take from this experience.”