Global perspectives: Studying at SAIT during a pandemic
In a global economy, SAIT's International Centre works to recruit, welcome and support students from around the world — even in the midst of a pandemic.
This January — despite countless challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — up to 500 international students undertook SAIT studies online from their home countries.
But more than 300 international students traveled to Calgary for the Spring 2021 semester. At every step along the way, SAIT’s International Centre worked to guide and assist these students, making endless arrangements and adjustments to welcome them safely on campus.
LINK shares the stories of eight international education insiders during this academic year like no other — and explores the importance of international studies for students, for SAIT and for Canada’s economy.
In 2019, after being accepted into the Travel and Tourism diploma program, Gyuhun Choi began making plans to travel to Calgary in May 2020 with the goal of starting classes that September. But then COVID-19 halted all international travel, so Choi started his first semester from his home in South Korea.
Choi says online studies were a challenge because of the approximately 16-hour time difference — but shifting travel restrictions and regulations meant more challenges were to come once he finally received his study visa in October 2020. As he tells LINK:
Travel and Tourism student
From that moment, I prepared for all the things that I needed to do and booked a flight. But then, in early January, I heard the news that I had to get the COVID-19 test three days before entering Canada. I got stressed out because my departure date was on a Monday, so I had to get the test on a Saturday to meet the 72 hours."
“I went to the hospital emergency room in Jeonju, South Korea, around 9 pm and got tested. I had to wait outside for over 30 minutes. It was so cold that I almost caught a cold. On top of that, it was demanding to prepare the many documents, such as a self-isolation plan and the COVID-19 negative confirmation — and it also cost a lot of money."
“But after arrival, during the actual quarantine in the SAIT Residence, time flew quickly because I had to follow my studies. There was no time to be bored during the quarantine — but I wouldn’t want to do self-isolation again!
SAIT is one of approximately 80 Alberta post-secondary institutions with government approval to accept international students during the pandemic.
As the pandemic intensified and borders closed, SAIT and other Canadian post-secondaries expanded their role as advocates for international education, working closely with government and public health bodies to make it possible for international students to enter the country.
As a result, border restrictions have been lifted for international students if they are travelling to a designated learning institution with an approved COVID readiness plan.
Patrick Sullivan, Director of SAIT’s International Centre, says there’s a “keenness, a drive to come and study in Calgary.” He and his team work to support SAIT’s current international students, attract more international learners, and enhance cross-cultural awareness across the institution.
He describes the endless ways COVID has changed the usual international student experience.
Director, SAIT International Centre
Before COVID, the process for most international students was linear. They would apply for their visas and permits, begin to engage with SAIT staff, get their travel organized, fly to Calgary and begin their classes."
“But during COVID, students have faced many barriers in their countries such as lockdowns, civil strife and bureaucratic or government department shutdowns that have prevented them from getting required documents. Public school systems were shut down, so they couldn’t get the educational documents they needed to apply. Flight routes were cancelled all over the world. The list is endless."
“Then there’s changing government regulations in Canada, especially around travel restrictions and shifting quarantine rules. At one point, students couldn’t travel here at all.”
Sullivan says SAIT’s readiness plan shows the provincial government how SAIT is meeting all quarantine and safety requirements.
1. Since January, the International Centre has implemented a mandatory, 14-day, on-campus quarantine package because:
- International students arriving without a proper quarantine plan could have been turned back by the Canada Border Services Agency.
- If some students did not take quarantine as seriously as others, they might have exposed the entire Calgary community to risk.
The package costs students approximately $1,550 and includes taxi fare from the airport, accommodation with SAIT Residence, three meals a day delivered to their room, free Wi-Fi, and the ability to connect with support services through the International Centre.
2. SAIT hired more than 30 student safety ambassadors to help support pandemic safety efforts. These ambassadors — some of whom are international students themselves— carry out key tasks like validating daily campus access forms, monitoring physical distancing and ensuring proper mask use on campus.
Most importantly, the ambassadors were the first members of the SAIT community to personally welcome new international students arriving at the Calgary International Airport. Student safety ambassador Jaspreet Kaur Brar is originally from India and is now in her second year of the Print Journalism program. She explains what goes into welcoming students:
JASPREET KAUR BRAR
Print Journalism student
We work as pairs at the airport when we have a student coming. When we get to the airport, we set up the Welcome Booth, which includes a SAIT banner and a SAIT student welcome package, and we wear yellow hoodies, our SAIT ID cards, and black face masks that have ‘SAIT’ written on them."
“I really enjoy this part of the job because we are the first ones to meet the new international students. We’re the first impression they have. So we greet the students at the airport, answer their questions, then book the taxi for them to take to Residence. Then we let the SAIT Residence staff know they’re on their way.
The why and how
With SAIT’s buildings closed to students except for a limited number of in-person labs, what’s behind the push to bring international students to campus despite the pandemic?
Sullivan points to SAIT’s 2020–2025 strategic plan, New World. New Thinking., which is driving the International Centre’s work in doubling the institute’s international student population over the next five years — all with the goal of strengthening and enhancing world-wide perspectives and turning SAIT into a truly global campus.
A global campus is one where all students — Canadian and international — can develop cross-cultural skill sets, adopt inclusive practices, and enrich their learning experiences through exposure to a wider variety of perspectives, values and approaches. It’s also a crucial element for thriving not only in a multicultural Canada, but also in an increasingly complex global economy.
To recruit students, Sullivan and his team use a variety of strategies, activities and programs. In non-pandemic times, this includes travelling to visit recruitment fairs, to attend networking events, and to make presentations at high schools around the world.
But now that such international business travel is impossible, SAIT relies on more than 100 authorized recruitment agents from 35 countries who were already on contract pre-pandemic. Recruitment events are also being held on Zoom and other conferencing platforms, and the Centre is using social media to reach international prospects.MYTH: International students are taking seats from domestic students.
FACT: Since 2018/19, domestic applications have been declining by 4% each years across most Alberta post-secondary institutions. At the same time, international students usually pay two to three times higher tuition and are unable to qualify for tuition loans in Canada. International students not only strengthen the intercultural fabric of Alberta classrooms, their presence also allows many programs to stay viable by supplementing the grant funding post-secondary institutions receive from government.
What puts SAIT on the global map for prospective students?
Sullivan says: "It's our applied learning approach — the fact that our programs are so intertwined with industry gives our students that competitive advantage over attending a college or university."
"I think that's a huge reason why an international student would choose SAIT — they're getting technical training that's directly connected to industry, thanks to our program advisory committees."
"In many cases, industry actually donates equipment it uses in the field to ensure SAIT students are job-ready when they graduate and can seamlessly transition into these roles in industry."
"Plus, the majority of SAIT programs are two-year diplomas, and Canada's immigration regulations are structured so international students who earn a designated two-year diploma are eligible to apply for a three-year
Even in non-pandemic times, the application process for international students is more complex than the process for domestic students. Prospective international students must submit both their original high school or post-secondary documents, as well as certified English translations and assessments of those documents.
They must also demonstrate English language proficiency and, upon acceptance into a SAIT program, apply immediately for a study permit and temporary resident visa. And then, Sullivan says, there are a host of practical questions facing international students.
“Once they are accepted in their program, international students start trying to figure out what’s available over here, what they can afford and what life will look like. ‘Do I need a car? Will I find the food I’m used to? Is there a religious organization I can go to? How much does it cost to go to the dentist?’
“This is usually when international students begin to engage with the Centre, so we offer pre-arrival webinars including a course we’ve developed called Canadian Classroom 101, which helps them understand and adapt to Canadian systems and academic progression. We also have support services to get them set up with health care and online workshops on how to find housing.”
As part of SAIT’s COVID readiness plan, the International Centre hired three new recruitment assistants — all previous or current international students — to reach out to newly accepted students waiting for their documentation and to help with their next steps.
Kajol Bhatia is one of those recruitment assistants. An Indian national born and raised in Dubai who graduated from SAIT's Journalism program in 2020, Bhatia began calling accepted students living in the Middle East, Nigeria, the Phillippines, India and other countries to check on their progress in receiving their study permits. She says students frequently ask about the scholarships or student awards SAIT offers:
Print Journalism '20
International students pay higher fees than local students, so they’re looking to be able to reduce their living costs somehow. We have student advisors at the International Centre who provide assistance with understanding the award criteria and ensure students have a valid SIN number, which is the basis for any financial transaction in Canada. They may recommend or suggest other awards that are specifically designed for international students.Watch video
The International Centre’s support intensifies as students arrive on campus and throughout the mandatory quarantine. With physical distancing rules firmly in place, the centre has ramped up its digital events and online interactions to help newly arrived students feel a sense of community.
Alexia Grace Carreon plays a key role in reaching out to newly-arrived international students.
Carreon, who came to SAIT from Bahrain in January 2020 to begin her diploma in petroleum engineering technology, had just started meeting her fellow students when the pandemic forced all SAIT programs online that March. Today, in addition to her studies, Carreon works as a student ambassador, putting together digital events, webinars and videos that provide peer support to other international students. She says loneliness caused by pandemic restrictions is a major problem.
ALEXIA GRACE CARREON
Petroleum Engineering Technology student
“The International Centre is very responsive. You can email us and get access to counselling services. We’re also promoting online clubs and digital events where we can gather, which I know from my personal experience is important. Having someone to talk to right now is, I feel, one of the most important things. The online global cafes are something that usually happen once a week. It’s amazing to see the students — even students who aren’t international students — drop in online. We visit and play games on Microsoft Teams. It’s so fun.
On arrival: Adjusting and connecting
The centre’s focus on creating local connections is a constant, even in non-pandemic times. For international students who have just arrived in Alberta, eager to learn as much about Canada and Canadians as possible, adjusting to the nuances of a new school, a new city and a new way of life can be daunting — but, as these current and former international students tell LINK, it can also be pretty fun.
Having just graduated in April 2021 with a diploma in welding engineering technology, Shida, who came to SAIT from India, is looking forward to staying in Calgary and finding employment in his field.
Welding Engineering Technology '21
It was a great feeling when I came here in September 2019. I felt a kind of freedom being at SAIT."
“Initially there were no friends and too many faces, so it was kind of an awkward feeling. But everyone was so friendly, so it was just a matter of time before finding a group and meeting friends and letting go of my nervousness."
“A few days after I arrived, the International Centre held a welcoming party for us. I attended, and it was really good to get along with everyone and know everyone better. It was a good party, with good food and good music.”
Building talent for Alberta and around the globe
According to a survey of international students conducted by SAIT, about 80% said they want to remain in Canada post-graduation. As changing demographics point to a general decline in youth and working populations in Alberta (and the rest of Canada), international graduates represent potential skilled talent that can help support and grow our workforce while keeping a city like Calgary viable and vibrant.
At the same time, many international alumni also choose to return home, using their skills to make a difference in their own countries.
Both scenarios play a vital role in improving lives, enriching global relations and strengthening cross-cultural communication. And no matter their decision, the International Centre helps students with everything from the visa extension process to workshops on obtaining a post-graduate work permit.
LINK checks in with two international graduates — one who has returned home, and one who has stayed in Canada.
Yossanan "Andy" Korsakulpanich came to SAIT from Thailand to earn an aircraft structures technician certificate and graduated in 2006. He went on to earn his SAIT diploma in aircraft maintenance engineers technology in 2008.
When Korsakulpanish completed his aircraft maintenance, he was set to begin a new career. However, following a visit home to see his family, he found his new knowledge and skills had put him at an advantage in his home country. He is now back in Thailand where he currently shares his expertise as an aviation advisor for the Thailand Automotive Institute, Aviation Industry and serves on the Eastern Economic Corridor’s aviation sector committee.
Aircraft Structures Technician '06
Aircraft Maintenance Engineer Technology '08
“Because of my certificate for aircraft structure and diploma for maintenance, I was the first in Thailand to have that specific kind of training. My technology training was about 15 years ahead of Thailand, so I decided to continue my future here in Thailand’s aircraft industry."
“When I went to study abroad in Calgary, I met new friends from different countries and learned about different cultures. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it has helped me to adapt when I work with others, especially on an international level.
Staying in Canada
Hailing from Mexico City, Chavez graduated from SAIT with a diploma in mechanical engineering technology (MET) in 2018 and is now working as a mechanical engineering technologist for Nemalux Industrial in Calgary.
JESUS ORTIZ CHAVEZ
Mechanical Engineering Technology '18
“After I graduated, I started work at a company in Calgary. And what I’ve been doing here is actually, I will say, 70% of what I learned at SAIT — such as the software I’m using. This is actually one of the companies that I wanted to be at when I went to SAIT. This is the type of job that I wanted to get. But this is not the end of the road. I’m still planning to finish my full degree, here in Canada."
“SAIT was an amazing school. It was like a home for me, to be honest. I used to go to class at 8 am and then not leave school until perhaps 11 pm to do my assignments or study. But the whole process, that whole time I was there, it was so enjoyable. You work so hard, you work so diligently to get your assignments done, and at the end of the day, that sensation of accomplishment, no one can take that away from you.”
Looking to tomorrow
As LINK goes to press, Sullivan says the International Centre is working to offer more on-campus programs to the 2,831 international students who have applied for the Fall 2021 semester — but those plans ultimately depend on Alberta’s pandemic recovery and Alberta Health Services safety guidelines.
Although it’s unclear what fall will bring, there’s no question that international enrolment brings talent, ideas and substantial economic, academic and social value to SAIT and our community. During their studies, international students create jobs by expanding Canada’s consumption base: they rent or buy homes; purchase furniture and appliances, vehicles and consumer goods; eat take-out from restaurants; and support jobs in the education sector.
For employers, international alumni are highly qualified candidates, graduating with relevant Canadian experience and often bringing valuable experience from their home countries.
“Our international students have the best prospects of realizing their desire to stay as permanent residents in Alberta because they graduate with the skills employers are looking for, in a very short period of time, and they’re part of this strong community,” Sullivan says.
“When our international students graduate, they are going out into Calgary and beyond. They’re also going to be talking about SAIT to their uncle in New Delhi, or their cousin in Rio de Janeiro. Part of the end result of the international student journey is that the graduates go out and impact industry, whether in Canada or around the globe.”
An extended version of this story was originally written for the Spring 2021 print issue of LINK — Raw, risky and full of joy.