October 21, 2019

Last summer, Shivam Sharma didn’t know what Conestoga College looked like.

“I would Google videos online,” the second-year international student from India said in an interview.

“I didn’t have any exposure to the facilities or culture. I just had an offer letter.”

Shivam Sharma, back, and Tracy Durana are student support staff for the international office at Conestoga College. Pictured here on Sept. 13, 2019. (Patrick Spencer/Spoke News)

He was happy to be accepted into the IT business analysis program, but anxious about the move to Canada.

Now, after a year of post-secondary experience, Sharma is one of five international student outreach ambassadors helping to fill in the gaps for those facing similar challenges.

Working closely with Conestoga’s international office, he attends workshops, orientation events and webinars aimed at answering questions from current and future international students.

“Any guidance they need — housing, online forms, legal issues — I try to help. I get them to the right person if I don’t know,” said Sharma.

And it’s no small task for the self-described “middleman.” Not only does he balance the role with his schoolwork, Conestoga is set to welcome a record number of international students this year.

The international office estimates around 10,000 will enroll across all five campuses, about half of them for the first time.

In 2017-2018 the total number of international students was just 3,200, according to an annual report produced by the college.

“It’s everybody’s job, and really a collaborative effort to welcome them,” said Diana Ning, manager of international student support services.

She said student support staff are an important part of an expanding transition program that addresses the unique challenges of each student.

The office is currently hiring an additional transition coordinator and rolled out a new airport welcome program this fall.

Tracy Durana is another international student outreach ambassador at Conestoga. She is from the Philippines and studies in the Global Hospitality Management program.

She explained that language is another common barrier for international students, but it’s one she – and other ambassadors – can overcome.

She recalled a student who was having issues with paperwork two weeks ago. It was the start of the semester and his $1,500 deposit was missing.

“I spoke a few words from our language, and he was like, ‘You’re from the Phillipines?’ I remember him breaking down … he was just so thankful,” said Durana.

Durana speaks Tagalog. Sharma speaks Hindi and Punjabi. Conestoga has other ambassadors from Iran and Colombia who speak other languages.

Durana and Sharma said communication can still be difficult at times, but that ultimately their goal is to simply be approachable.

 “They know we can relate to their problems,” said Durana.

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