Internationalizing the university

- March 3, 2011

Henna hand
Students decorated each other's hands with mehndi during Diwali celebrations last November. (Bruce Bottomley Photo)

Hands extending in friendship, students take turns decorating one another’s palms with intricate patterns of Mehndi. The henna designs add some Indian culture to the Student Union Building during Diwali celebrations organized by the Indian Subcontinent Students Association (INDISA).

The number of students from India is growing at Dalhousie. There are 174 students at the university this year, more than double the number from two years ago.

Recently, Dalhousie President Tom Traves was a member of the largest group of Canadian university presidents to go to India. The mission, organized by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, raised Canada’s profile in a country where an immense and youthful population makes the demand for post-secondary education so great it can’t be met within its own geographic boundaries.

Come to Dalhousie

“There are literally hundreds of thousands and, eventually, millions of Indian students who will go abroad, and, as their national wealth increases, they will have greater capacity to go abroad,” Dr. Traves says. “So, clearly, we have an interest in having some of those students – the best among them – come to Canada and come ?to Dalhousie.”

This initiative illustrates an overall increase in international enrolment at Dalhousie which has reached 1,770 students representing more than 110 countries. Significant enrolment increases were recorded from the Middle East (especially Saudi Arabia) and in Asia (particularly China).

Dalhousie’s strategic student recruitment initiatives are advancing the university’s efforts to expand its presence in markets across Canada and around the world. This is especially important given the declining number of Atlantic Canadian students.

Åsa Kachan, assistant vice-president enrolment management and registrar, addresses the benefits of a multicultural learning environment.

“I think one of our goals in internationalizing the university is to create opportunities for diverse viewpoints in the classroom, allowing students, whether from Truro or Toronto or Bangkok, the opportunity to meet people from around the world and engage with them academically and socially,” says Ms. Kachan.

First-rate minds

Dr. Traves highlights the value of a global perspective for international and Canadian students.

“For the international students coming here, on many, many occasions I’ve had conversations where people have said, ‘This transformed my life. It taught me to see the world in different ways, it opened up possibilities to me that I never would have imagined were available and it gave me some insight into career options. It set me up as it were for the way the rest of my life evolved.’”

In turn, international students contribute greatly.

“They bring a wealth of personal experience, in a sense they embody their national experience. So, in the first instance, they enrich the campus environment,” says Dr. Traves. “The second component is that we’re very fortunate to attract really capable students. Whenever you have a first-rate mind from any environment, they raise the bar?for everybody.”

Year of India in Canada launched

In this Year of India in Canada, it’s timely to share experiences and insights from a student, a recent graduate and an alumna who, many years later, retains strong memories of her university. Together, they paint a picture of what it’s like to travel across the world and enter a new cultural and learning environment.

“Where one studies and how one studies are part of one’s cultural heritage,” writes Manju Kapur (MA’72), author of The Immigrant. “And, of course, to study in an environment completely different from your own means an opening of the eyes, an expansion of the mind.”  

Ponmalar Pandian

Ponmalar Pandian
Ponmalar Pandian: 'Here you get personal freedom.' (Bruce Bottomley Photo)

Ponmalar Pandian’s very first plane trip was from Chennai (formerly Madras) to Halifax. The pain of leaving her family tempered the elation she had felt when she was accepted into Dalhousie’s master of engineering (Internetworking) program.

Though she still misses her family – she uses Skype to talk with them daily, sharing what she has done and seen – she is happy to be here.

“Studying abroad has always been my dream because it’s a total shift from who you were to what you’re going to be. I believe this,” she says. “This is the place where you get international exposure, because when in India you get along with all kinds of Indian people, fine, that’s a great environment, but now I’m here in a multicultural nation where I see people from every country.”

Ms. Pandian says she has also experienced a new level of independence. “(In India), you don’t just live for yourself, you live for your family, you live for the society. But here, you get personal freedom. You can live for yourself, for your happiness, and no one is going to stop you. No one’s going to question you. And I love this.”

Manju Kapur

Manju Kapur
Writer Manju Kapur's latest novel is called The Immigrant.

When asked to sum up her experience as a graduate student at Dalhousie, Manju Kapur reflects back.

“What can I say? Such experiences are impossible to sum up, they are so far reaching and so intense. It was the first time I had been on my own. It was a time of great loneliness as well as great freedom. I was forced to see myself differently because I was in a different place, because in fact I was now being seen differently. This is the issue, isn’t it? To what extent does the way you are perceived affect your own self-perception?”

Ms. Kapur brings this insightfulness to her fourth and latest novel, The Immigrant, in which Halifax and Dalhousie figure. The novel was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. (Difficult Daughters was a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book (Eurasia) winner and an Indian bestseller.)

Nearly 40 years have gone by since Ms. Kapur’s Dalhousie days, yet her recollections remain strong.

“Education, social, intellectual, exposure to a different way of life, being thrown upon myself, survival, a brilliant library open well into the night, unfettered access to books, emphasis on personal academic contribution, meeting people I would never have met otherwise, both Indian and Canadian, a beautiful campus, freedom to walk everywhere, looking at possibilities open to women – Dalhousie meant all that.”

Philip Kuruvilla

Philip Kuruvilla
Philip Kuruvilla with his bride, Nicy Kurian. "You have to come out of your cocoon."

Philip Kuruvilla (MEC’08), from Kerala, was working in IT in India when he chose Dalhousie for its multidisciplinary master of electronic commerce program. A welcome bonus was the university’s multicultural environment.

“I took this course on e-government and we had people from Botswana, we had people from Ireland, and it was very enriching to see how e-government initiatives are carried out in those countries,” says Mr. Kuruvilla.

Outside the classroom, he learned to be more self-reliant. “Cooking was definitely one thing, living on a shoestring budget, then there is the whole, you’re suddenly immersed in a culture that is very different. So you have to come out of your cocoon.”

He skied, went to Cape Breton – “it was breathtaking” – and experienced Hurricane Juan. He says the greatest similarity between Halifax and India is that “people love life. That celebration of life whether you’re rich or poor, whatever condition you’re in, I’ve seen that uniquely in both places.”

Today, Mr. Kuruvilla is an IT analyst in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, Nicy Kurian, an IT consultant also from Kerala. Although their work days are long, Mr. Kuruvilla remains connected with his friends, most of whom are also Dalhousie alumni.

“It’s not that we reminisce every time we meet, but there is that bonding that we had, that shared past....That’s probably what keeps it together.”

Make yourself at home

Ruby Russell
Ruby Russell has welcomed 15 students to share accommodations. (Bruce Bottomley Photo)

When Prabakaran Soundararajan arrived from India to study at Dalhousie University, everything was an adjustment: the city, the weather, the food. But there was one place that always felt like a home: Ruby’s apartment.

Now a postdoc associate at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, Mr. Soundararajan rented a room from Ruby Russell after seeing a posting in the SUB.

Over the years, he was one of 15 students – most from India – who came to stay with the retired Newfoundlander in the cosy two-bedroom apartment on Inglis Street, about a 10-minute walk from campus. Other students arrived on her doorstep from Botswana, Bangladesh, Guyana, Libya and one from exotic Ontario.

The young man from India and the diminutive senior citizen became fast friends. They played Scrabble, watched TV and went to the Nova Scotia Tattoo and Halifax Feast. At Thanksgiving, Ms. Russell cooked turkey dinner with all the trimmings for Mr. Soundararajan and 18 of his university friends.

“She was like a mother, no doubt about it,” says Mr. Soundararajan, who dedicated his PhD thesis to his parents and Ms. Russell. “I asked her, ‘Can I call you Mama? And from that time, everybody started calling her Mama.”

“She’s a very nice lady,” adds Santhosh Karanth, a postdoc at the University of Ottawa, who stayed with Ms. Russell while completing his PhD at Dalhousie. “It seems that after hosting many international students over the years, Mama developed a curriculum of her own to help us get adjusted.”

That education went both ways, says Ms. Russell, who came to learn all about IST – “Indian Stretchable Time” – and to identify the savory smells wafting from her kitchen.

“It’s been an eye opener,” she says, sitting in the corner of a well-worn chesterfield, her knitting on her lap. “But I started with the attitude of ‘it’s your home too.’ If you’re not happy, I’m not happy. So come on in and be comfortable.”

Mr. Soundararajan says he’ll never forget her kindness. “In this day and age it is so rare to encounter someone so giving. What little she has, she loves to share it.”

- Marilyn Smulders


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