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Q&A: Master of Social Work graduate Frances Li shares insight on the international student experience at U of T 

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During her time as a Master of Social Work student at the University of Toronto, Frances Li dedicated herself to intercultural learning and fostering a supportive community for those from abroad. An international student herself, the 2023 graduate, who came to the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work from Hong Kong, is now planning for a career focused on destigmatizing mental health and creating inclusive environments for students. We spoke to Frances to learn more about the experiences of international students, how her social work education has informed her work, and advice she would give international students starting at U of T in the fall. 

Photo of Frances Li wearing a Social Work University of Toronto sweatshirtWhat inspired you to pursue a Master of Social Work degree in Canada? 

I have a deep passion for working with individuals from various cultural backgrounds and felt that studying in Canada would expose me to a broader range of perspectives and experiences, enhance my cultural competence and improve my ability to effectively support and advocate for diverse populations. I believe that the ability to work with people from different backgrounds is essential for providing effective and culturally sensitive social work services. 

Canada is renowned for its high-quality education system and the University of Toronto stood out as a prestigious institution known for its exceptional faculty member, rigorous curriculum and diverse student body. I was attracted to the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals in the field and gain a comprehensive understanding of social work practice. Studying abroad in a different country was a chance to step out of my comfort zone, challenge myself and develop a global perspective. It allowed me to connect with like-minded individuals, engage in cross cultural collaboration and establish relationships with professionals and peers from diverse backgrounds.  

Could you tell us about some of the challenges that international students often encounter that might surprise people? 

Uncertainty about future opportunities is a common concern for international students. We often face uncertainties about finding suitable employment, obtaining work visas and permits and whether to pursue further studies or return to our home country. Navigating post-graduation options can also be challenging due to the visa restrictions or language requirements. Accessing health care services and navigating the health care system can be difficult as well. Language barriers, unfamiliar health care practices, and insurance coverage issues can hinder our ability to find appropriate support and resources for physical and mental health issues. 

International students may also encounter different teaching and learning methods than they are used to. Adjusting to a new educational system can be difficult. Academic expectations, the evaluation system, academic writing styles, critical thinking approaches and study techniques can be different and demand additional effort to succeed academically. 

WATCH: Frances created a video as part of a class project for SWK 4658H: Social Work with Immigrants and Refugees, taught by Izumi Sakamoto. Titled Struggles and Difficulties faced by an international student in Canada, the video project provides an overview of challenges faced by international students, particularly those from Asian countries in Canada, and explores experiences of anti-Asian racism.  

You were a member of U of T’s the International Student Experience Advisory Committee. Could you tell us about that experience? 

The International Student Experience Student Advisory Committee (ISESAC) is entrusted with important responsibilities aimed at improving services and programs specifically designed for international students. By gathering feedback from international students and staying updated on emerging trends, we contribute to the development of new initiatives that can further enrich their lives. Our goal is to ensure that the university is continuously evolving and adapting to meet the changing needs of its diverse international student population.  

Being a part of this committee allowed me to collaborate with dedicated professionals and fellow student representatives who are deeply committed to improving the international student experience. My involvement in the committee also provided me with a platform to make a tangible impact on the lives of international students at our university. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to have served in this capacity, and I really look forward to witnessing the Committee’s continued progress in supporting and empowering international students on their educational journey. 

You also held a work study position at U of T’s Centre for International Experience. What programs does CIE offer to support international students at U of T? 

CIE is a comprehensive resource and information hub for international students. One of the key services offered by the center is immigration advising and support. This includes assisting with study permits, post-graduation work permits, co-op work permits and information on working in Canada. The Centre also hosts information sessions on permanent residency led by staff members from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).  

The centre also provides information and support regarding the University Health Insurance Plan, UHIP, and other healthcare services available. It helps students navigate the complexities of healthcare coverage and helps ensure they have access to the necessary medical services.  

Overall, CIE offers resources and support throughout different stages of an international student’s time at the University. It organizes programs and events designed to support international students as they transition into university life, and it facilitates connection with others. The Centre also offers exchange programs, research opportunities abroad and scholarships to study in other countries. It provides students with a lot of opportunities to develop their academic and professional skills and gain valuable global experience. 

How did you apply your learning from the Master of Social Work program to your work study role as a program assistant with the Centre for International Experience? 

The cultural competencies and sensitivity I developed throughout the Master of Social Work program allowed me to navigate cultural differences effectively, taking into account each student’s unique needs and providing the necessary support. My social work training also helped me contribute to developing programs using an intersectional approach. This involves understanding how different aspects of identity such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, intersect and impact individual experiences. In addition, the program equipped me with micro skills in engagement and group facilitation. By utilizing techniques such as active listening and creating a safe and supportive environment, I’m able to build rapport, provide support and address concerns effectively. Those skills have been essential in my interaction with university staff, and external stakeholders as well. FIFSW’s social work program also emphasized the importance of advocacy work and addressing systemic issues. This knowledge is highly relevant to the Program Assistant role that I held, as I can advocate for the needs and concerns of international students by raising awareness, promoting diversity and inclusion and ensuring that programs and services meet their unique needs.  

How would you like to see the University build on its programs and support for international students? 

First, I believe that it is crucial for the university to expand its outreach efforts as many international students are not fully aware of all the services and resources that are available to them. It is also important to acknowledge the emotional challenges that international students encounter when moving to a new country. To address this, I think the university should focus on increasing mental health and wellbeing resources. Expanding counseling services and organizing support groups specifically tailored to international students would be valuable in providing students with the necessary support. Awareness campaigns that address the unique challenges faced by international students would also help foster an environment that encourages open discussion about mental health and reduce the stigma around seeking help.   

Access to affordable education is a significant concern for many international students as well. Our tuition fees are very high and not aligned with the services we receive. I think the university could explore opportunities to expand financial assistance programs and scholarships specifically tailored to international students.  

Lastly, I think it is essential for the university to strengthen its career and employment support services for international students. This includes providing comprehensive information about work opportunities, internship, and post-graduation employment options that are tailored to the specific needs of international students. By equipping them with the necessary resources and guidance, the university can empower international students to thrive professionally and make meaningful contributions to their fields.  

How have your personal experiences informed your approach to social work? 

Through my own journey, I have encountered various challenges, triumphs and personal growth, which have enabled me to approach my role as a social worker with empathy, compassion, and a deeper understanding of the human experience. My personal experiences have also allowed me to cultivate resilience, determination and a strong belief in the importance of self-empowerment. I have encountered immigration challenges, limited access to resources, discrimination, and the complexities of navigating unfamiliar systems, and I know the transformative effects of accessing appropriate support, resources and guidance. My experience has inspired me to be an advocate for others, especially those who may feel marginalized or overlooked. It has fueled my passion for advocacy and motivated me to use my expertise as a social worker to advocate for policy changes, raise awareness of the unique needs of individuals requiring assistance and work towards dismantling the systemic barriers that hinder their wellbeing.   

What are your goals for the future? 

My long-term goals revolve around staying in Canada and contributing to a better educational experience for all students with a particular focus on supporting international students. I’m deeply committed to fostering a supportive and inclusive environment where every student feels valued and has access to the resources and support necessary to thrive academically and personally. One area of great importance to me is mental health. I believe that prioritizing mental wellbeing is essential for students’ overall success and happiness. Therefore, I aim to focus on initiatives that promote mental health awareness, provide accessible mental health services and create a campus culture that destigmatizes seeking help. By advocating for and actively implementing a comprehensive mental health support system, I aspire to contribute to a university community where students can flourish not only academically but also emotionally and mentally. 

7 pieces of advice for new international students from Frances Li 

We asked Frances: if you could go back in time to when you first started your degree and give yourself some advice, what would it be? 

You may feel a rush of excitement at the beginning, but there will also be moments when you feel overwhelmed and that is completely normal. You are not alone! 

Prioritize self-care. Moving to a new country, adapting to a different culture and immersing yourself in a rigorous academic program can be demanding. Take time to care for your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Allocate time for activities that bring you joy and relaxation. And don’t underestimate the power of building a strong support system around you.

Each of us has our own pace. It is crucial to recognize and honor that and take time to adjust and find your rhythm while embracing the opportunities that come your way. Remember that you don’t have to compare yourself to others or feel pressure to match someone else’s pace. Embrace and cherish your individuality. 

Consider taking up a work study position, an on-campus job or a part time job if you have the capacity, as this experience can introduce you to new people and help you feel more integrated into the community. Getting involved in committees or participating in voluntary work can also be beneficial.

It is totally fine to ask for help. The university offers an abundance of services and resources specifically designed to support your success, from academic assistance to personal guidance. Don’t hesitate to reach out when it is needed.

Embrace curiosity and cultivate an open mind. Don’t be afraid to question the unfamiliar. You will encounter a diversity of people and perspectives that you may never have encountered before. Embrace the opportunity to broaden your horizons.

Don’t second guess yourself. The fact that you have been accepted into this program is a clear validation of your intelligence and potential.