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Internationally Trained Immigrants’ Participation in the Post-Secondary System:

Enhancing the Role of Student Services Professionals and Nurturing Learning Communities

by Sarita Bhatta

December 6, 2016


The Canadian post-secondary education system has a rich student services culture that dates back many decades. The student services field has progressed over time and today student services play a vital role in both students’ and institutions’ success. Since its inception, student services has evolved considerably and become a significant instrument in creating  welcoming  institutional environments and nurturing student success on campus (McGrath:2010). The breadth of student services include:

  • admissions and enrolment;
  • financial assistance and scholarship; career and employment;
  • advising and counselling;
  • health and wellness;
  • recreation and
  • student engagement.

However, not all students are informed about these services and, consequently, may not participate in or benefit from these opportunities. This paper aims to critically examine if student support services available in post-secondary institutions are designed to meet the needs of students who are Internationally Trained Immigrants (ITIs).

Recent studies have indicated that thousands of ITIs, who have previously obtained credentials before immigrating to Canada, enroll in colleges and universities soon after they arrive in Canada. This paper seeks to investigate whether there are adequate services offered by colleges and universities especially for ITI students, explores why immigrant students’ needs are different from other students, and understand how student services professionals can identify gaps and develop competencies in order to better serve these students.


Canadian colleges and universities are very diverse. However, post-secondary institutions have not always viewed the diversity of its community members as either a valuable resource or an asset for enhancing the on-campus cultural (McGrath et al.:2010). One group that contributes to the prevailing diversity of Canada’s post-secondary schools are ITIs. The growing trend of immigrant participation in post-secondary institutions calls for more formal and organized immigrant-focused services. Every term, thousands of ITIs enrol in post-secondary institutions, as discussed in “Recent immigrants: A comparison of participants and non-participants in Canadian post-secondary education.” This study was funded by Immigration Refugees Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and conducted by professors Paul Anisef (York University), Robert Sweet (Lakehead University), Maria Adamuti-Trache (University of British Columbia) and David Walters (Guelph University). Based on the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants in Canada, the aim of this study was to examine the extent to which immigrants utilize the Canadian post-secondary education system soon after arrival. The focus of this study was adult immigrants who had already obtained post-secondary credentials in their country of origin. The study results show that “within 6 months of having arrived in Canada 10% percent of immigrants within our sample enrolled in a Canadian post-secondary education. Within 2 years of landing some 33% were enrolled and, by the 4th year, 44% had participated in either a college or university course or program” (Anisef et al.: 2009). Despite the fact that the number of adult immigrants on post-secondary campuses is rising, very rarely have immigrants been identified as a group with specific needs in post-secondary institutional policies (Adamuti-Trache et al.:2010). As such, there is an ongoing need for more student services that caters to ITIs’ special needs.

Immigration System:

Canadian immigrants come from around the world. Since the early 1990s, Canada has welcomed on average of 250,000 immigrants annually (IRCC: 2016). People immigrate to Canada in a variety of ways, with federal government bodies, like Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and individual provinces playing important roles. There are three broad categories of immigrants to Canada: Economic Class, Family Class and Refugees. More than 50% of immigrants to Canada fall under the Skilled Workers subcategory of Economic Class (IRCC: 2016). They are also commonly known as Internationally Trained Professionals within education, employment and immigrant serving sectors. For this study, I will be looking at this subcategory of immigrants, who immigrate to Canada on a points-based system. Points are secured on the basis of factors like secured employment in Canada, employment background, education level and language proficiency. Canada currently employs an Express Entry System that was implemented in 2015 and designed to process applications faster and more efficiently. Under this system, both those who are already in Canada as students or foreign workers, and those who are outside Canada can apply to the pool system, with applicants with job offers in hand receiving priority to immigrate.

Post- Secondary Attainment:

Immigrants face multiple barriers to the labour market. Some barriers are due to partial or no recognition of experience and credentials that they have acquired abroad; others are related to lack of local experience, language and weak social networks. Studies have shown that the major reason behind immigrant enrolment in post-secondary education after arrival is to improve employment prospects.

There is much research that supports the positive outcomes of obtaining Canadian credentials for immigrants. Generally, immigrants who participate in education in Canada after migration receive greater returns on their education and find better employment than those who have only foreign credentials (Banerjee et al.:2015). In “Decreasing the Recent Immigrants Earning Gap: The Impact of Canadian Credential Attainment,” Rupa Banerjee and Byron Y. Lee show that the earning gap between recent immigrants and native-born Canadians is significantly reduced with the attainment of a Canadian educational credential. In fact, studies show that immigrants who have lived in Canada for five or more years and obtained their highest post-secondary degree in Canada have an employment rate comparable to their Canadian-born counterparts (Statistics Canada: 2008).

Moreover, in “The Portability of New Immigrants’ Human Capital: Language, Education, and Occupational Skills,” Casey Warman, Arthur Sweetman and Gustave Goldmann write that the limited portability of pre-immigration human capital is an important contributing factor to immigrants’ lower earnings in Canada. The study’s results shows that immigrants who successfully match their pre-immigration learning and experience with the one they obtain in Canada receive a substantial boost in the Canadian labor market (2015). Taken together, these studies highlight the positive impact of Canadian credentials on immigrants’ earnings and labour market participation. However, they fail to elucidate exactly why immigrants are successful in finding jobs after studying in Canada. Some of the possibilities include: educational upgrading, growth in social capital, familiarity with social and cultural environments, or simply because Canadian degrees are easier for employers to trust.

Navigating Post-Secondary Environment: 

In terms of their general needs, ITIs who are enrolled in post-secondary institutions are no different from international students who are temporarily living in Canada on student visas. The common perception is that it is only international students who are not familiar with their school’s environment; it is assumed that immigrant students, depending on when they landed in Canada, are familiar with the educational and cultural aspects of their post-secondary environment. At the same time, post-secondary institutions consider immigrant students to be local students because of their permanent residency status. This poses a dilemma for these students, as they are at once ineligible for international student services because of their legal permanent status and not “local enough” to navigate the system and benefit from the available co-curricular services offered by their schools. These students rely on information provided by newcomer settlement agencies, and friends and family. There are many cases where ITIs end up enrolling in private career colleges without understanding the difference between private and public colleges, and without knowing the legitimacy of these private institutions.

There are some public colleges that offer special services to ITIs. One of them is Humber College, which offers one-on-one advising services to newcomers to help guide them in selecting an educational pathway. The college is located in the GTA, which, according to Byong Ho, Academic Advisor at Humber College, makes it an appealing option for many immigrants. He says they receive “so many requests from new immigrants who want to know about Humber’s programs to join” (B. Ho personal communication, November 18, 2016). Similar to Humber College’s advising services, George Brown College offers Entry Advising services. According to Alex Irwin, Director of Immigrant and Transitional Services, 70% to 80% of George Brown College’s entry advising clients are ITIs (A.Irwin personal communication, November 29, 2016).

It seems that both colleges receive many inquiries from ITIs, who they are very happy to help navigate possible educational pathways. However, for many colleges, keeping ITIs informed on admission information is one of the highest priorities, to the detriment of other important student services: Ho says, “We advise immigrants on their enrolment and program choices, but once they started start their program at Humber, it is hard to target only immigrant students to provide specific information” (personal communication, November 18, 2016). With the growth of the ITI student population, it is evident that post-secondary schools’ focus on recruitment-oriented advising services has been very successful in recruiting ITIs. According to Alex Irwin, more than 30% of the current student body at George Brown College identify as ITIs, while 14% are international students (personal communication, November 29 2016). In addition to being new to the country, ITIs are also mature students.  Ho says that as a result of the fact that “most of the orientation services are designed for younger populations,” “it might be somewhat difficult for mature students to access these services easily” (personal communication, November 18, 2016) In addition, Irwin says that “ITIs have families and other commitments and they usually join fast-track courses and they do not have time to be involved in co-curricular activities” (A. Irwin personal communication, November 29, 2016). Of course, it is also possible that immigrants are not aware of co-curricular opportunities offered by their schools; it could be that based on the lack of these services in their home countries, they do not know these services exist. As Maria Adamuti and Robert Sweet argue, “Immigrants are often from countries with educational systems that do not share the cultural origins and orientation of Canada’s post-secondary system, nor are the curricular structure of their post-secondary institutions similar” (Adamuti-Trache et al.:2010) It is not difficult to see that there are many potential causes of ITI students’ under-representation in student services. As Evan and Reason contend, to be intentional, the work of student affairs professionals must be grounded in research and theory. (Evans et al.:2001)

There have been many studies that sought to investigate the impact of Canadian credentials on immigrants’ income and labour market mobility. However, there is currently a need for studies that focus on ITIs’ experience in post-secondary environments in order to better understand the barriers and opportunities for them in accessing services such as advising, counselling and co-curricular activities. Ho points out that “most immigrants are mature students and many of them have previous education in many special areas. Therefore their interest and motivation is often different than non-immigrant students”(personal communication, November 18, 2016). In addition to their different interests based on their educational and career backgrounds, ITIs are a diverse group of people who come from different countries and historical and socio-cultural backgrounds. It is also important to understand the intersectionality of these differences in relation to their culture, gender, race and ethnicity.

Student services professionals’ competencies with respect to Internationally Trained Immigrants: 

The competencies for student services professionals identified by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) are as follows: communication, post-secondary acumen, equity, diversity and inclusion, intercultural fluency, leadership management, administration, indigenous cultural awareness, strategic planning and assessment, and technology and digital engagement. All of these are fundamental to the work of student services professionals (CAUSS: 2016). In addition to these competencies, below are a few more competencies that student services professionals must keep in mind as they develop and plan for ITI students’ success.

Thinking beyond student recruitment:

Institutions’ increased attention towards enrolments influences the behaviour of student services providers, especially those who are in student entry advising fields. Because of recent government funding cuts and increased competition for funding, post-secondary institutions now aim to generate a major share of their revenue from student fees. As such, student recruitment is currently a major factor in the survival of Canada’s post-secondary institutions. In this context, student services professionals must be able to understand foreign credentials and their actions must be motivated by intentionality to support ITI. As Harper states, “Perhaps most important, intentionality demands seeing oneself as an educator rather than a practitioner, staff member, advisor, director, or some other title commonly assigned to those responsible for student learning and development outside the classroom” (et al.:2011).

While student services professionals must see themselves as educators first, they must also develop skills to conduct needs assessment and support ITIs in identifying the best possible option for them. They can help ITIs explore whether they should choose the financial and temporal burden of school or a different venture that can help them develop the skills required for the labour market.  Student services professionals must also question whether they are unknowingly contributing to the system that perpetuates the devaluation of foreign credentials.

Information, orientation and advocacy:

ITIs who are enrolled in post-secondary institutions often do not access student services after admission. Barriers and challenges in accessing services and engagement opportunities offered by schools can arise due to structural problems, insufficient language proficiency, simply not knowing how the system works, and differing cultural values. Nadia Caidi et al. explain social exclusion as an information problem, contrary to other social exclusion theories that suggest it is a result of economic, social and cultural conditions (2010).The authors suggest that social inclusion should be viewed from an informational perspective and that in order to reach out to ITI students, student services professionals must understand the information-seeking practices of immigrants. They must know “How immigrants seek information, what their needs are, what practices they have adopted and adapted, and the potential barriers they encounter along the way” (Caidi et al.:2005).

There are other potential ways to understand and rectify the problem of ITIs’ under-representation in student services. Firstly, in order to help immigrants engage in school co-curricular activities, such as orientation services, associations and groups, services must be tailored to the specific needs of ITIs. In today’s post-secondary environment, students come from all walks of life: some come from privileged backgrounds while others, like ITIs, come from under-represented communities. Historically, the student population and the workforce of post-secondary institutions in Canada were not as diverse as they are today, which can help to explain why the current post-secondary system does not have proper ITI support services in place. Employing a diverse workforce is an important step in student services meeting ITIs’ specific needs. Moreover, this diverse workforce is made more likely when ITIs entering the labour market have successfully received student services while attending a post-secondary institution. Their subsequent employment in student services would help to better reflect the diversity of today’s post-secondary students in Canada. As such, promoting the student services sector among ITIs is important to bringing and keeping their diversity in the field.

More generally, Chris McGrath writes about the positive outcomes when student services professionals advocate for students: “the shift from student organization-based activism to institution-based advocacy can facilitate greater access to institutional resources and support, stable and often broad-based leadership on equity, and an advocacy function that becomes integrated within the institution’s mission, systems, structures, and organizational policies” (2010). Furthermore, as Kathleen Manning et al. state, “the advocacy culture is one that finds balance in opposition and meaning by creating more equitable campus environments” (2011). Advocacy culture brings important attention to implicit issues, opens dialogue and creates pathways for students who are otherwise not served. Student services professionals must be mindful of their institution’s growing diversity and advocate according to the needs of ITI students.

Multicultural competency for student engagement:

ITIs’ engagement in post-secondary co-curricular activities allows them to learn about the education system, practice Canadian culture, make friends outside their own cultural groups, develop leadership skills and be active citizens. Student services professionals must reach out to students who may not otherwise have access to information or interest in being a part of on-campus activities. They play a crucial role in bridging the gap between students and engagement by creating inclusive opportunities where all group members feel safe, welcome and belonged. According to Kristen A. Renn and Lori D. Patton, “designing the environment so that every student finds a supportive ecological niche is the shared responsibility of academic and student affairs professional” (2008). All components of the on-campus environment structural, political, symbolic and human resources—must be welcoming and accessible. Student services must create environments where adult students like ITIs can meaningfully engage and benefit. In order to create these opportunities, student services professionals must demonstrate greater multicultural sensitivity and responsiveness. To become multiculturally competent, one must be self-aware and understand one’s own upbringing and life experiences. Staff must participate in trainings and be involved in the ongoing, lifelong process of becoming multiculturally competent (Pope et al.:2011).

Need for multi-sector collaboration to support ITI students:

Student services professionals’ aims should be to ensure the holistic development of ITIs by creating supportive and responsive environments in collaboration with internal departments, stakeholders and policy-makers. There are many examples of collaborative actions; some of the best practices are as follows:

  • Bridging programs offered by colleges and universities help ITIs bridge the gap between education in their home countries and Canada. However, these programs are very few and are for specific professions. In Ontario, these programs are funded by IRCC and the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, and are offered by post-secondary institutions and Employment Ontario. There is a great need for implementation of more such programs.

– In 2009, Colleges Ontario, an advocacy organization, consulted with employers, ethno-cultural business organizations, business associations and unions to understand how colleges can better address language needs in the workplace, support immigrant integration and promote the transition of immigrants to the province’s workforce. As a result of this multi-sector consultation, Occupation Specific Training Programs were produced. These programs are funded by IRCC and are currently offered to ITIs for free by twelve colleges in Ontario (collegesontario.org: 2009). These programs have been very helpful to many immigrants. However, in comparison to the number of ITIs coming to Canada each year, these services are very few and cannot meet the needs of newcomers to Canada. There is a need for more such initiatives.


Student services professionals must adopt a critical lens to ensure that post-secondary institutions are creating students who are engaged and have the opportunity to receive holistic development, instead of students who are disengaged and do not develop other necessary skills. Are schools misleading immigrants by not providing opportunities and options that are conducive to ITIs’ holistic development? As stated in the course’s broad learning outcomes, the mission of student services must be educational. To deliver this mission, student services professionals must create and foster an environment where all students, regardless of their differences and abilities, will have opportunities that facilitate their personal, academic and social development as they transition in, through, and beyond a given institution.


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Sarita Bhatta is a community development professional with expertise in community outreach and engagement, immigrant settlement, language, education and employment services. She is a firm believer in the value of adult education—for both clients and her own personal and professional growth.