It was a long, long 40 hours of travel deserving of its own Tolkienian novel.
First, computer science student Gabriel Lemos Rodrigues boarded a pre-dawn flight from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Heathrow Airport in London, England. Then he skipped across the Atlantic to Toronto’s Pearson Airport. From there, a shuttle ferried the second-year student to London and the doorstep of Western’s Essex Hall residence: his new Canadian home.
And then he took his weary legs to bed.
“It was 12:15 a.m. I was greeted very well,” said a now-rested Lemos Rodrigues. “We got a basket with snacks and they told me the protocols, what to do and what not to do and what to expect.”
Lemos Rodrigues didn’t leave his suite for the next 14 days due to mandatory quarantine – a span of time he spent battling boredom by gaming, eating “top-notch food,” and breaking the day’s monotony by waving to his friends as they headed off to play pickup soccer games.
He also tested negative for COVID-19. All students arriving from outside of Canada are required to register their quarantine plan with Western, and have a COVID-19 test at the end of their self-quarantine.
This story is not unlike hundreds of other international students arriving in London for an unprecedented fall semester. In a year that is anything but typical – in a time of COVID-19 – support for incoming international students started long before their arrival and will continue well after their classes begin.
“We’re ready. We want to welcome them,” said Britta Baron, vice-provost and associate vice-president (international). “We know that the majority of our international students, who are not yet in Canada, want to come here and we are doing everything possible to make that happen.”
COVID-related travel restrictions have meant some students aren’t yet able to leave their home countries, while other students were already in Canada and remained here when borders were tightened. Regardless of their circumstances, international students remain a valued part of the Western community, said Lise Laporte, senior director of Western International.
“There’s just been a tremendous amount of commitment to supporting the students who are able to travel to Canada. From transportation and safe quarantine to a full slate of programming and wellness check-ins when they arrive, we’re doing everything we can to help make that transition to campus easier, which is hard at the best of times. It’s been a real campus-wide effort,” said Laporte.
“And we’re placing an equal emphasis on supporting international students who are joining us remotely. We really want to make them feel part of the Western community, regardless if they are hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away.”
Virtual support will not only come from faculty and staff but peers too.
“Students will be able to connect with us digitally and have access to all our services and supports virtually,” said Laporte. “And they’ll also find opportunities to connect with each other and with peers so that they’ve got a sense of community and their cohort.”
Full range of support
Upon arrival, international students were each assigned their own single-occupancy suite with private kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom. (Provisions are also in place for students who arrive with spouses or children.) But while they were physically isolated for the first 14 days – and not permitted to leave their suites – international students were not alone.
“All students, whether they’re on campus or off campus, have daily programming,” said Chris Alleyne, Western’s associate vice-president of housing and ancillary services. “It’s a combination of virtual hangouts with peers and staff and recorded videos helping get them oriented.”
Hospitality services is also delivering three meals a day to quarantined students in residence and those in Western-arranged off-campus housing.
For Lemos Rodrigues, that meant choosing a lot of salads and chicken from an online menu.
“They have top-notch food and food-delivery service, which really impressed me,” he said. “I know some of my friends at other universities weren’t that impressed with their food service.”
Whether in on or off campus Western-arranged quarantine accommodation, students also receive a purple bag of practical items such as reusable utensils, facemasks, laundry soap and hand sanitizer.
More importantly, students also get daily check-ins for their physical and mental health from peer guides and welcome-team volunteers speaking English, Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Farsi, Hindi, Mandarin, Spanish and/or Russian.
“We’ve put a very robust program together to support students from a logistical standpoint to ensure they’ve received a safe and appropriate physical accommodation to get settled,” said Laporte. “We are also looking after that social and connectedness piece to help them engage with Western and the greater community.”
Leading the way
While the first wave of students coming from abroad has already arrived, more will come to London in the weeks and months ahead.
“A lot of students are still wanting to come here. And when that becomes possible, Western International will be ready to help them arrive safely and acclimate well,” said Baron.
“Hopefully, as time goes by and as we move into September and October and even into June 2021, we’re going to see a lot more students who will want to physically come to Western and will be permitted to do so. We need to be ready for when that happens so we can easily transition them from digital learning to an in-person student experience.”
Baron said when speaking with counterparts around the world, it has become clear that Canada’s response to COVID-19 has made it a preferred destination for international students.
“I am very proud of all of the work that’s been done across campus and, honestly, across the country to prepare for the fall term,” said Baron. “It’s great to hear from my peers that Canadian universities are leading the way in health precautions and academic programming for international students.”