York University is committed to providing a healthy, safe and supportive environment that fosters the mental health and wellness of students, staff and faculty. In January 2018, York International (YI) launched #YIFeel, a mental health campaign for international students. The international student mental health awareness campaign aims to create broader awareness about mental health challenges faced by international students and introduces the international student body to the many services available at York U. I took a trip to York International and interviewed two student Global Liaisons, Vishwaveda Joshi and Gianluigi Zito, about the campaign and what it means for international students at York U.
If you or someone you know within the York U community requires mental health and wellness support services, consult the Mental Health & Wellness at York (MHW) website as well as their resources page. Students can also access Student Counselling & Development on weekdays from 9am to 4pm at 416-736-5297 or the Good 2 Talk Ontario Post-Secondary Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454.
YUBlog: What is #YIFeel’s message?
Vishwaveda Joshi: When we first started, the initial message we started with was getting people to understand that international students have very specific needs in terms of mental health and access to mental health resources [as well as] certain stresses in terms of financial issues and cultural and academic transition. We wanted to bring that message to the fore front [by giving] students a progressive space to talk about those experiences and recognize that it is okay to have these mental health challenges. The other message, or idea, behind the campaign was to extend the resources that we have in place at York.
Gianluigi Zito: The second phase mainly focuses on channeling our messages, stories, experiences and our voices through the resources offered at York campuses. Many of these issues are coming from stigmas that not many international students can fully comprehend since the concept of mental health back home is something not talked about or acknowledged. It is hard to get help, so it is not as much about if such resources exist, but more [about] how these resources can make their presence louder and more clear for international students. One of our goals was to bring multi-lingual counsellors, especially for major international student communities. It is something that domestic students will also benefit from as York is such a big community where many students speak more than one language.
YUBlog: Are there any methods that you use to get the student body to participate in this campaign?
GZ: Yes, absolutely. One of them was [getting students to describe] their story, their background, where they are coming from and how they perceive mental health in blog posts. Students have also participated in feature videos, [and there are also] writing and visual components to our campaign. We also created posters in phase one and two. International students in the community have been participating because mental health is something close to their heart and they want to express it either visually or through writing.
VJ: The way mental health is discussed here [in Canada] is different from how we’ve been taught to talk about it back home. The campaign also [helps others] understand the variety of cultural differences and conceptions around [mental health] and accessing support. For instance for myself, or a lot of cultures that are more close-knit, I’ll talk to my family first instead of directly seeking counselling services. We gave students physical and virtual spaces to relay their raw, informal and organic stories. We are using [the stories] to collect information and present the gaps in access [to mental health services]. This was the main and initial goal when we launched the campaign.
YUBlog: What would you like to see changing at York U with this campaign?
VJ: One is multilingual counselling. Often times many international students have never spoken English and they are unable to share things with us because of the language barrier. Many issues students face could possibly be avoided if we are able to communicate more efficiently. Second is summer availability because, even for domestic students, only students enrolled in courses are able to access counselling. Having this available to students year-round would be beneficial. The underlying goal would be to demystify what mental health entails because students are often not aware of what can be classified as mental health.
YUBlog: Is there any specific way that you think the campaign will help to target the stigma of mental health issues?
VJ: We are redefining what the stigma is by having students tell their stories. It is easy to say, “they are not talking about their feelings because mental health back home is stigmatized.” Not necessarily. Sometimes it’s a lot to do with personal conceptions around it and personal challenges. I recognize that I need to go to counselling, but it could take me four or more weeks to say “I really need to go now.” I strongly believe that when it comes to undoing or unfolding stigma, there is a lot of re-learning and un-learning that has to take place. So conversations and saying your story is really important and this campaign does exactly that.
YUBlog: Aside from the language barrier, what kind of barriers do international students face that domestic students may not know about?
GZ: Living in Canada is also very tough from a financial and personal perspective. Worst case scenario for a local student if they can’t find a place would be to find one of their many resources close to home. Most international students don’t have any connection in Canada, so finding a new place, understanding how to budget for it, where it is [in relation to] campus can impact daily life of some international students. Finding work can also be very hard and finding that extra source of income can be stressful considering there are not many options.
VJ: I’ve learned through constant interactions with students here and in residence, these challenges [like finding a job] detriment them from a certain sense of capability and purpose that a lot of domestic students have when it comes to being in university. It can easily turn into “I’m not capable of doing this, which is why I am not getting a job,” or “I don’t have the skills, which is why I’m not getting the job,” but sometimes there really is no opportunity for them to show that they have these skills.
YUBlog: How is the university experience different through the lens of an international student?
GZ: In university in Italy, most of the [assessments] are oral and not actually written. So when you come here and everything is written, such as lab reports or essays, it’s just so different. Back home it is a lot of oral presentations and it is almost up to the professor to say you’re saying something ‘better’ than the other person. [Another major difference is] when I can talk to my professor face-to-face. [In Italy] this would never happen. Professors are seen as higher, superior entity that you can’t talk to.
VJ: Another major difference is with questioning professors. Here [in Canada], the culture is that you can challenge your professor and say “Hey, I don’t agree with what you think.” This is something that is not encouraged [in India] in high school or in university and sometimes that leads to a lot of complacency. Higher education lacks a lot of critical thinking back home, so I think that is a huge positive of being here as an international student. You are forced to think and ask questions and inquire, which is a very important skill.
YUBlog: How did these challenges affect your first-year transition to university? Did it make the transition to university harder?
GZ: When I came here to Canada, I remember most of my first months were spent questioning myself. Was this the best idea? Should I have come here? Should I have stayed [in the U.K.]? Should I have gone to another country in Europe? But I think those are common challenges among all students and after being in university you start to embrace those challenges. No matter what, we still go through the same [hardships], no matter our backgrounds, our financial status back home or here or our job status. Now I look back at the challenges I had in first and second year and I laugh. Right now I have challenges, but I know that since I’m about to graduate, that when I am looking for a job that I will look back on the problems I have now and [laugh]. Challenges will always be there.
VJ: I was so excited to leave home and do anthropology because there is no opportunity to do anthropology back home. So it was almost an act of rebellion for me to say that I’m not going to do medicine and I’m not going to become a doctor, which most people do back home. For the first two years I didn’t go through any of the culture shock or any of the transition challenges at all. I thought that this is brilliant, this is so great. However, I remember I went home after my first two years for the summer and coming back I thought, “was this the wrong decision to make? I miss home so much!” So it hit me much later. Everything I’ve done here, working as a residence don and working [at YI], as well as all the challenges I have had to face are very fulfilling to me. I do not regret it at all. Students have different experiences and that is a main goal of the campaign as well – bringing out those different experiences and [showing] the positives and negatives that exist in the international student experience.
YUBlog: Finally, How has York International helped you in your time as a student here at York University?
GZ: When I came to York International, there was a larger demographic [of students] than when I was at an international school in the U.K. and it was very interesting! A lot of my first year was coming out of my comfort zone and once I was comfortable with myself, I was able to embrace the community. In my second year, I started volunteering for Vishwaveda with the first steps of the campaign. I found some people in my path at York International that I can consider my home here in Canada and those people contributed to my [personal] development. York International is a place where meeting people is essential for your self-discovery. If I decided to only stay friends with the few friends I met in my program, I wouldn’t have embraced my experience here in Canada and at York. It is an important place for international students.
VJ: I always say that the minute I came to York I felt like I belong here and I am supposed to be here. It is a physical feeling and I have the memory of that feeling still after almost five years. In 2014, when I first came, York International didn’t have the resources that they have today. There were no pre-arrival webinars and nobody knew where the office existed. It was a very general introduction compared to the resources that we offer today. In my second year, I started volunteering in the Global Peer Program and became a peer supporter. I have met the finest people through this department. People that I consider as family or come to consider as family.In terms of professional networking, this has been very important as well. I have been able to meet a lot of people in the field of anthropology through connections here. I encourage students who are even just volunteering or stopping by to constantly come in and interact with the full-time staff because they will link you to their connections. To work on the mental health campaign and help be a part of all the new initiatives that York International has implemented over the last three years has given me that sense of purpose to give back to the community and give back what York means to me and extend it to other students.
Find out the different ways you can get involved in the York International community by visiting their website.