When Ebenezer Martin-Yeboah came to Canada from Ghana in 2019 to pursue his PhD in health information science, he was overwhelmed with all the rapid changes.
He was inundated with information and didn’t know where to turn.
Others in the Ghanaian community in London, Ont., helped him navigate some of his urgent needs and make his way around the city. Then, he sought help from Western International.
“When academic work intensified and everyone else was addressing their own needs, I was left on my own. I realized that I needed a ‘go-to’ place. I came into contact with some of the resources from Western International. I realized that if I needed anything, I knew I could start getting it addressed there,” Martin-Yeboah said.
He reached out for assistance with a study permit and again when he applied to bring his family to Canada.
“Truly, information seems to be everywhere, and in those situations, what you need is accuracy.”
Western International helped with everything from tax clinics to meeting new friends at the weekly Global Café. Those events and social connections later pushed Martin-Yeboah to volunteer to help other international students at Western.
When COVID-19 hit, he was amazed by the support.
“It was so gratifying to feel how Western International acted as a true family. I was consistently checked on and offered immeasurable assistance.”
Martin-Yeboah, previously a librarian at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, is one of nearly 5,000 international students who have chosen to pursue an education at Western.
That number is expected to increase as the university fulfils its pledge to grow in a responsible and strategic way. One element of that growth is boosting Western’s international student body to better align with the proportion achieved by most other distinguished universities in the U15.
International students are a crucial part of Western’s campus community, and the fabric of the entire country, said Lily Cho, vice-provost and associate vice-president (international).
“Great universities produce students who have a global mindset. One of the tremendous values that international students bring when they are a part of our classrooms is to help us understand and problem-solve from different perspectives and contexts. I can’t underscore how important that is,” she said.
International students at Western, including undergraduate, graduate and PhD students, come from 128 different countries.
Indeed, a university’s “internationalization,” including the number of students and faculty coming from outside the country, is an important element of success in higher education globally, Cho said.
“There is no great university that doesn’t draw, attract and sustain relationships with students from all over the world.” – Lily Cho, vice-provost and associate vice-president (international)
“It’s a key metric for how we are ranked in global rankings – one of the key measures of our greatness as a university is how we are able to attract students from around the world to come to study on our beautiful campus.”
Many international students like Martin-Yeboah choose to live on campus since it is stable, secure and affordable.
When he first arrived in Canada, Martin-Yeboah lived with a family who treated him like a loved one and offered a reasonable rental rate. But after his wife and two children joined him in Canada, they moved to the Platt’s Lane Estates, a Western building tailored to graduate students and those with families.
He has since welcomed his third child there. Between the playgrounds, other children and the short walk to school, the apartment meets all of his family’s needs.
“I can always see that they love being here,” Martin-Yeboah said of his kids.
“The Platt’s Lane environment is so community focused, everyone is trying to be there for one another, we more or less are all international students.”
Western runs the largest first-year residence system in the country and offers the second-largest housing network overall, only behind the University of British Columbia. It also offers support tailored to international students looking for off-campus housing before they arrive in Canada.
Two new Western residences are in development, including a first-year building on University Drive and an upper-year and graduate apartment on Platt’s Lane, which will collectively house about 1,000 additional students. The Platt’s Lane building will include space prioritized for international students.
Construction is expected to begin this spring.
Canada’s Housing Minister Sean Fraser said the federal government is considering options to help universities build more housing, though they have been traditionally excluded from federal funding programs.
“We’re living in a different time than most of history. As the landscape changes, my view is so too should our policies. The exact way it should change is something that I’m working on now, to identify new opportunities,” he said.
“We don’t have time to waste.”
Though Fraser wouldn’t guarantee changes to any existing funding programs when interviewed by Western News during a recent visit to campus, he said he’s considering all ideas, including putting capital in the hands of partners – such as universities – that can drive new housing across the country.
“If there were a program that funded university housing on campus, what you’re essentially getting is not just the unit that you provide on campus, but the unit that you free up in the community. So when we have opportunities for that positive cascading effect, it’s something that can multiply the impact of the investments you make,” he said.
Apart from being affordable and convenient, Western also prides itself on the community and connections available in its residences, offering a first-year guarantee so all incoming students can count on living on campus if they wish.
Daan Verheij had such a positive experience in residence, he opted to stay. His first-year don provided support with everything from setting up his social insurance number to opening a bank account when he arrived at Western from the Netherlands.
“My don really helped me a lot, so I thought ‘I want to do that job,’” said the third-year student of commercial aviation management and economics.
“It also provided some stability around housing. I knew when I came back I would have a place to live.”
Verheij enjoyed mentoring younger students – both domestic and international – so much that he’s continued as a don.
“It’s so valuable to see the students come in all nervous and excited, and then watch them go off at the end of the year as confident students, ready to tackle the next few years.”
“The students who come here, stay here, and they succeed. That’s a sign of the outstanding experience they have,” Cho said.
International students play a big role in that success – not just for Western, but for London, Ont. and Canada as a whole – she said.
“Since the beginning of the very first universities in Canada, we have been a place where students from all over the world come to learn. That is a huge part of the richness of our country and the legacy we have in the world,” said Cho.
WHAT THEY SAID
“The Western experience is what most universities around the world would yearn for. Western strives to ensure the well-being of its people. This is evident in openness in communication, a strict and non-negotiable upholding of equity, diversity, and inclusion principles, a safe campus with the beauty of nature, an abundance of helpful resources for a purpose-driven academic experience, and above all, the quality of leadership training.”
– Ebenezer Martin-Yeboah, health information science PhD student
“What a big misconception it is that we just want to live abroad for a few years and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s not a light decision (to study internationally). Because it’s such a big commitment it also means we’re committed to Canada, wanting to work and give back, because Canada gave us an opportunity to get a good education.”
– Daan Verheij, third-year double major in commercial aviation management and economics
“Higher education, and education in general, has always been one of the most powerful forms of diplomacy across borders. We are never in a moment where there is not conflict or turbulence. Universities have a unique role to play in facilitating conversations and dialogues between communities and across borders. I would be sad to see limits placed on the possibilities of those conversations.”
– Lily Cho, vice-provost and associate vice-president (international)
“We need to figure out how we can trigger investment from the housing providers, whether that’s private developers, whether that’s colleges and universities, whether that’s nonprofit organizations – we need to figure out how we can put more capital in the system to build the housing we need. So I’m thinking right now on how we can do that through a change in financing opportunities, through a change in eligibility criteria for existing programs and through changes, potentially, in tax regimes.”
– Sean Fraser, federal housing minister