NIC Celebrates Diversity

New ‘Students of NIC’ social media campaign highlights students from near and far

Tomoko Ikeda from Japan and Marielle Virtucio from Dubai are just two of the students telling their stories in the Students of NIC campaign. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Of the 3,657 students taking credit courses or programs at North Island College (NIC) this past winter, 333 were international students from 34 different countries. The majority of students came from India, China, Japan and Africa. Depending on their areas of study, most complete their programs locally, while some eventually transfer to other Canadian universities. In most cases, they spend several years studying here while also learning to love the Comox Valley.  That means that almost 10 per cent of NIC’s student body is made up of international students. But what is it that draws these students from around the globe to our community, and what challenges do they face adapting to life on Vancouver Island?

Marielle Virtucio explains that she was intrigued when an academic counselor in her home country of Dubai suggested that she consider attending school at NIC in Courtenay. Based on the glowing recommendation of her counselor—and yearning to do something completely out of her comfort zone—the then 16-year-old made the bold decision to move half way around the world for her post-secondary education. Now 20 months later, the vivacious Bachelor of Business Administration Marketing degree student at North Island College laughs when she recalls the day that she first stepped on the tarmac at YQQ.

“I arrived on August 31, 2015, and it was super windy and raining,” says Virtucio with a big smile. “It was just 17 degrees outside. I had just come from New York City with my family and had left Dubai before that. I was only wearing one layer of clothing, and I was really confused. ‘Isn’t it summer?’ I asked myself. I was really amazed because I breathed the air and it was just so… different. It was a shock to me. It smelled like nature. I had never smelled that before. And there were so many trees! That sounds cliché, but that was a big deal. I have never seen trees so big.

“I was also shocked that there was no one around except for people at the check-in counter,” she says. “I wondered where all the cars and people were? I wondered if I had moved to a ghost town!”
Japanese born and raised Tomoko Ikeda came to NIC after she became friends with a NIC exchange student working in Japan. Her newfound friend raved about the virtues of Vancouver Island in general and the Comox Valley and NIC in particular.

Ikeda is married and the mother of a lively seven-year-old daughter. She had spent most of her adult life working as an English as a Second Language teacher in Japan. But she wanted to make a dramatic career change—from teaching to business administration—and was intrigued enough about NIC to contact Colleen Hanley, NIC Associate Director of International Education (at the time), who is now retired. In the spring of 2016 Ikeda attended her first term in the Bachelor Business Administration, General Management degree at NIC, leaving her husband and daughter behind in Japan while she stayed with a host family. Last fall, after travelling back to Japan for the summer, she fully committed to her studies abroad by returning to the Comox Valley with her daughter, renting an apartment of her own, buying a car, and maintaining her marriage long distance. She is the first to admit that it has been difficult—really, really difficult.

While the benefits of a smaller college, the natural beauty of Vancouver Island, and the desire to learn still hold great appeal for both of these international students, adjusting to life (and the education system) in a new country comes with a myriad of challenges. Language barriers, cultural differences and loneliness are issues that they face on a daily basis. Depending on their countries of origin, most have had to adapt from living in a fast-paced, densely populated city where there can be comfort in having so many others around, to sometimes being the only person walking down the street. The solitude we may take for granted can be terrifying to someone who has never walked alone.

“And then there are the people who simply won’t speak to you in a grocery store (for example) or those that purposely speak exceptionally slowly,” says Virtucio. “I think they assume that you are incapable of speaking English. Sometimes, I want to reply in the same manner, so they can see how frustrating that is!”

Ikeda, whose English is exceptional considering it is her second language, laments that she doesn’t understand why some people don’t seem to want to listen to her. “I know it may take me a little longer to formulate my words,” she says, “but when people don’t take the time to listen I feel dejected.”

Seeing the struggles international students face, and being inspired by their stories of perseverance and strength, Jennifer Barth and her colleagues in NICs Global Engagement Program were motivated to do something proactive. They wanted to make life better not only for the international students, but for those they attend classes with, their teachers, and people in the community. The idea for a new social media campaign for students to tell their stories was conceived.

The weekly ‘Students of NIC’ Facebook series that launched in January initially profiled international students, showcasing their journeys, passions and activities on campus and in the community. It soon expanded to include all students, including those enrolled in NIC’s Access for Students with Disabilities – Employment Transition Program.

The stories are loosely based on the successful Humans of New York (HONY) campaign that was created by photographer Brandon Stanton in 2010. His initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street, to create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants, along with quotes and short stories from their lives.

These portraits and captions became the subject of a vibrant blog and a best-selling book. HONY now has more than 20 million followers on social media and provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers on the streets of New York City.

While neither participating students nor staff anticipate that the Students of NIC campaign will garner such international acclaim, judging from the positive comments and numbers of ‘likes’ on Facebook, it is pulling at heartstrings and opening avenues of communication for all NIC students, as well as their friends and families from around the globe.

“The Students of NIC campaign profiles stories which are intentionally raw, organic and a true representation of what it’s like to come to the Comox Valley to study,” says Barth, who coordinated the campaign as part of her undergraduate degree at Royal Roads University. “These are their own words. Reading them gives you a new perspective of international students and our community through their eyes. I hope it strengthens understanding and builds connections—on campus and off.”

When Barth first put out the call for volunteers to come forward to share their stories, Ikeda hesitated because she didn’t believe that talking about her joys and struggles would be of interest to anyone. Then, after giving it more thought, she decided to come forward.

In her Students of NIC profile Ikeda, who is extraordinarily polite and reserved, wrote a candid and courageous account of her life here.
“Language barriers are one of the difficulties both my daughter and I are still struggling with because we hardly used English in our daily lives in my home country of Japan,” Ikeda writes. “Even if I prepared a lot of time in expressing myself and my daughter’s situation, it cannot be as precise as what I [could] do in Japanese.

“Cultural adjustment is the second biggest problem, although everything has been globalized nowadays and there seem [to be] few things that look very foreign to me. I spent two years studying in the UK, so I thought that studying here would be very similar, but it’s not. It’s very different here.

“One of the things I learned in Canada is [that] asking for help is important. ‘Bite the bullet’ is regarded as a sort of virtue in my culture, so I have been taught [to] ‘try not to bother people’ since I was a child. So I may not be good at asking for help. One of the NIC instructors, who is always caring for her students, once told me that asking for help is an important delegation skill. My friend that I admire most also told me that giving help is what a friend will do.”

For Virtucio, the opportunity to share her story was a chance to show her vulnerable side and, hopefully, open people’s eyes to some of the struggles that people from other countries face when they move here. She says her biggest challenge initially was that she felt very much out of place and she had tried to blend into the crowd. She eventually made some friends and learned she didn’t need to blend in but rather to simply be who she was, and the barriers of cultural difference eventually came down.

In her Student of NIC profile Virtucio shared: “My first semester here, I actually reached depression. It was really cold and it was getting dark so easily and I barely got out of the house. I was actually really questioning why did I come here. I came to Comox with cold feet. I didn’t know much about it. All I knew is I’m going to study here. I didn’t think about ‘how’s the town? How do I interact with people?’ So I was quite depressed until the winter semester. I always stuck around other international students because I didn’t know how to interact with Canadians, as weird as that sounds. I spoke English, but I didn’t know culturally what to talk about. After that, I made a couple of Canadian friends in classes and they took me to Nymph Falls and Elk Falls. And I think that’s what changed.

“I started to see what they like about the town. I had something to talk about. I hated talking about how I was from Dubai. I didn’t want them to think I was bragging or that I was loaded or anything. (I’m not.) I just happened to grow up there. I felt that whenever I said I was from Dubai, they saw me in a different way. I think that was also my problem in my first semester. I tried to fit in so much, that I wasn’t. Then I decided to accept that I am different. I can’t help it. I’m not Canadian. I’m not from this town. I’m a city girl. I think they started to see that side and that’s what interested them in me the most. They started to see me as an individual and not as someone that was trying too hard. I just wanted them to like me. It made me a stronger individual. I think instead of becoming them, I integrated. I am learning how to be around others.”

Despite their respective struggles, these two international students are also finding joy and the thrill of adventure in their new hometown.

“I love seeing and talking to people out walking their dogs—I am obsessed with dogs!” says Virtucio. “I have a dog back home in Dubai—a pug—and I really miss him. I also work part time at Costco and love seeing all the big comfy dog beds. People here are so kind to animals. I love that! And, having grown up in a desert, I love the nature and breathing air that smells good for you.”

Adds Ikeda: “For me, it is a welcome surprise when I sit on the bus or stand in line at the grocery store, and someone actually speaks to me. We never talk to strangers in Japan! And people here are always willing to help others. When I first bought my used car, I couldn’t figure out how to put the gas in. I appreciated others’ willingness to help me. And I love the nature! My daughter and I love to explore the beaches and forests, and we are always excited to see deer on the roads.”

The Students of NIC campaign is a poignant reminder that everyone has a story and we, as a community, need to make the time to listen.

View the Students of NIC profiles by searching #IamNIC on NIC’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, as well as on the ‘North Island College Welcomes the World’ Facebook page.