Why is it not easy to be an international student?

by Ali Golbabaei

Graphic design by Joshua Koentjoro

Every graduate student goes through obstacles in graduate school, from exams, presentations, meetings, and grants, to many other things–as a whole, graduate students have a lot to catch up on in an otherwise short period. On top of every graduate student’s education challenges, international students face extra pressure due to immigration barriers and their limitations.

Starting a graduate program in a different country is an excellent opportunity to broaden our expertise internationally and grow personally by learning from a new culture. Indeed, lots of students transfer to new countries to experience academia and a different lifestyle. However, the life of an international student can be difficult. International students may encounter various challenges. These can include adapting to a new academic environment, handling cultural differences, overcoming the language barrier, managing financial problems, coping with homesickness and mental stress, and much more. 

A Drastic Lifestyle Change

Personally, I think the biggest challenge international students have to overcome is the huge lifestyle change. Take housing, for example; whether it is your first time moving between countries or not, your new environment won’t unfold itself. You may be exposed to an entirely new housing market, unfamiliar prices, neighbourhoods, and roommates. You may even need to rediscover a library to study, a grocery store to shop at, and a cafe to hang out with your new friends. Finding friends may not be easy either, as becoming familiar with a new culture will take time and effort. The language barrier can make this process harder. Although many international students have studied English before traveling abroad, they may not be comfortable using slang or regional dialect. Trying to understand a conversation may feel overwhelming and favour feelings of exclusion. I found help in appreciating that I was not alone. Regardless of where and when you start your international experience, meeting people who are or have been in the same situation always helps. Not only will you be able to take advantage of their experience, but also you can learn more about your journey as an international individual.

Another big challenge for international graduate students is adapting to the new academic system. Whether in a professional or research-based program, graduate school may differ from what students are used to in their native countries. Usually, international students face much uncertainty. For example, many may not know how much engagement they should expect from their supervisor or may not be familiar with their program and exam requirements to confer. Although universities and colleges do their best to provide this information clearly, it usually helps if international students are in touch with an expert designated to explain all key information. This is especially essential as many international students arrive a few days late and miss the information sessions due to visa complications.

Speaking of visas, access to information is equally essential concerning visa-related matters. Immigration and visa procedures are substantive obstacles for international students that cause issues if appropriate resources are not provided. International students should always be conscious of their immigration documents and request extensions timely. If not followed carefully, international students can be denied entrance to Canada, stressing their studies significantly. Furthermore, long waiting times for visa applications can hinder international students from participating in conferences abroad as they may encounter visa troubles upon returning. What makes the process of visa applications frustrating is that there is yet another government-issued document. Before applying for a visa extension, international students need to extend the validity of their study permit. Combining the waiting time for the study permit and visa extensions, international students face six months or more before leaving the country.

This list would be incomplete without talking about financial issues. As an international student, you must be wary of your expenditures. This is mainly because of high tuition rates and limited funding opportunities. Most Canadian institutes require significantly higher tuition for international students than their domestic peers,1 which burdens students already struggling with living costs. 

Furthermore, funding and loaning opportunities for international students are scarce. Most well-known funding applications, including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Canada Graduate Scholarships (CGS), and most Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) applications, require permanent residency status. Even opportunities like Ontario Graduate Scholarships (OGS) that allow for non-domestic applications have a minimum quota for international students. This also translates to financial aid programs like Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), which are not provided to international students. The high tuition costs and limited financial assistance not only impose a direct strain on the students but put them at a disadvantage in securing competitively funded positions.

Mental Health Challenges

The accumulation of the challenges above leads to an even more concerning issue; the emergence of a mental health crisis. Even a few of the mentioned matters can put tremendous stress on one’s mind. Still, it should also be appreciated that all of these coincide with a critical period of the student’s life. Many are starting to live by themselves for the first time. Others left most of their friends and family for graduate school. The students are vulnerable during this time, and international student life’s stressors can lead to substantial mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. Once again, I see human connections as a potent remedy. Support from others like your friends or your supervisor can help immensely. Another related issue with this case is that many students are unaware of the available counselling and therapy services suggesting these programs need to be better advertised, particularly to international students who are less familiar with the Canadian healthcare system. 

Overall, the life of an international student can be challenging, and there is much space for improving the situation. However, it wouldn’t be fair to ignore the steps that have been made to address these issues. International student centers, immigration seminars, proper health insurance coverage, and many other resources are examples of significant progress toward rendering the international experience more equitable and more appealing. One such step is made by initiating student groups with a focus on the international experience. In the past couple of years, I had the privilege to be a part of such a group, the IMS International Community.2 We promote an international environment to support students in navigating their academic experiences. I hope the future holds more of these steps to improve the educational experience of international students.


  1. Statistics Canada [Internet]. Canadian and international tuition fees by level of study (current dollars); 2022-09-07 [Cited: 2023-02-21] Available from:  https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=3710004501
  2. IMS International Community [Internet]. 2022 [Cited: 2023-02-21] Available from: https://ims-international.ca/