TRU: Where the unfamiliar becomes the familiar
"Kamloops? I didn’t know about Kamloops,” Hayfaa Golapkhan says with a grin, between bites of pizza.
Classes won’t start at Thompson Rivers University for another few days, but this year’s international cohort is already running through a packed schedule of orientation meetings, introductions, off-campus activities — and even a trip to Wal-Mart.
For many students, the university’s international programs aren’t just a first chance to visit Kamloops. They’re the first time these young adults have even heard of the city.
That’s true for Golapkhan, in her third year of her chemistry and at the orientation as a student volunteer.
Though she had dreamed of studying outside her home country of Mauritius since she was a child, Golapkhan’s application to TRU was mostly a random endeavour.
“I really wanted to go out of my country, wanted to see what it was like studying abroad, get the experience and see if maybe the education system is different,” she says.
Her acceptance letter came with pictures of Kamloops. It seemed nice, she remembers. Not too big. Probably good. She decided to go for it.
In December 2009, Golapkhan started her first semester and experienced her first snowfall.
“I love adventure, so I was like, ‘Oh, this is my home now’ and, truly, it is my home,” she says.
“The first few weeks are really hard to get to know people but, after orientation, I said to my mom, ‘I’m staying here.’”
Oriol Salvadore has a similar story.
Hailing from Barcelona, Spain, he wanted to do a North American exchange as part of his journalism degree.
“They told me, ‘Oh, you are going to Thompson Rivers University located in some place called Kamloops.’”
Internet searches and screenings of Tourism Kamloops videos followed soon after.
Not quite a full week into his Kamloops experience, Salvadore is so far impressed.
“It reminds me of places I’ve been for holidays,” he says.
International programs come in two flavours at TRU: Short exchanges or full programs leading to a degree or diploma.
The former tends to attract European students, Australians and Brits, says Adrian Conradi, the university’s associate director of international services. The latter brings in students from mainland China and India, as well as other parts of Southeast Asia, and growing numbers of Latin Americans.
All told, the approximately 400 new students going through orientation represent 70 or more countries and account for most of TRU’s gains in enrolment this year.
It’s perhaps not surprising to know the support system that has grown up around them is complex.
The school boasts the largest international student advising team in the country, Conradi says, and each student is assigned a supervisor with a similar cultural and linguistic background.
“You have young people who maybe haven’t experienced other cultures before and they’re undergoing culture shock,” Conradi says.
“That’s happening. It’s inevitable. And, the [advisor] is there to guide them through some of the rocky periods that happen at first.”
The culture shock can be education-based, too. Students accustomed to a memorization and lecture format — “chalk and talk,” Conradi calls it — may struggle with TRU classes. The orientation also begins to tackle that issue before sending students off to get to know each other via Music in the Park or a free concert at Sun Peaks.
There is also a campus intercultural council made up of Canadian and international students, and an aggressive effort to get students chatting to each other on social media in hopes they’ll engage more offline as well.
The ultimate goal, Conradi says, is to get students participating in campus and Kamloops life, which can help stave off depression and lead to greater academic success.
“We’re just showing them what’s here so they’re not hiding in their dorm rooms, scared,” he says.
From Golapkhan’s view, the program has been a success.
“I’ll tell you this,” she says. “My life changed when I came here. My manners changed. I was shy before. But coming to university — no way.”