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Helping international students thrive

Dr. Arunima Khanna, Cross-Cultural Advisor, shares the challenges and rewards of her work in supporting and offering counselling to international students.
Dr. Arunima Khanna, Cross-Cultural Advisor, shares the challenges and rewards of her work in supporting and offering counselling to international students. (University Communications)

The Gazette talked with Arunima Khanna, Cross-Cultural Advisor with Student Wellness Services, as part of our coverage of International Education Week. Dr. Khanna provides counselling services to the 2,496 international undergraduate and graduate students studying at Queen’s, who come from 108 countries. Her work focuses on helping international students to navigate and adjust to campus life, as well as connecting them with resources and counselling for a range of personal and interpersonal issues that have an impact on physical and and mental health.

What type of support does cross-cultural counselling offer international students?

Our first point of contact with students is to participate in the orientation that is offered to degree seeking and exchange international students. Our message is that studying abroad can be both exciting and rewarding, but also challenging, sometimes stressful and overwhelming. The important thing for them to know is that there are resources and people that they can approach for help and support. Our aim is to put a face to our service, and to normalize seeking help and hopefully to reduce stigma.

After that, students are welcome to ask us for one-on-one counselling if they are having difficulties or if they have concerns about their environment and so on.  Sometimes these concerns are adjustment issues that pass with time, but sometimes more serious or pre-existing mental health issues can emerge. I always try to contextualize international student concerns within their social-cultural environment, by trying to understand how privilege, social and classroom dynamics, and their social experience impacts their mental well-being. Being away from your usual sources of support, experiences of exclusion or marginalization, and micro aggressions can cause an impact on mental health.

We also provide workshops to staff and faculty on multi-cultural competencies, and identifying the unique needs and issues of a diverse student population. I think “adjustment” has to be a two way process; it is not just about international students adjusting to Queen’s; the system has to adjust to the changing demographics of the student population as well.

We also try to advocate on behalf of our international students based on issues that we are seeing, the trends, what we think will be helpful for students to have a positive experience, and what is important to prevent mental health difficulties.

What sparked your interest in this field?

I am very interested in the social determinants of mental health and wellness. When I was training to be a psychologist, I noticed that these were often a missing piece in our interventions; the social-cultural contexts in which distress or issues were occurring were not being given full attention. I noticed that we needed to address not just the presenting issue, but also the contexts in which it is occurring. That is what got me interested in this work.

I firmly believe in using a strengths based, multicultural, equity, and social justice lens in my counselling and advocacy work. I also feel that if Canadian universities are actively recruiting international students, we really need to provide equitable learning environments, as well as culturally competent and meaningful services to our students.

How does your work feed into International Education efforts at Queen’s?

I hope that the work that we do provides support to international students to be well and really thrive during their time here.

As counsellors, we also have the privilege of hearing personal stories from students – their experiences, what are their struggles, disappointments, and successes. I think this information is important to share with senior administration and other decision makers when they design programs, equitable classrooms, support services, etc.

What needs to be addressed to see fewer mental health issues in the international student population?

First, helping students adapt to the academic culture. Academic difficulties cause vulnerability and it can be the beginning of distress. Students are spending a lot of money to come here, they have important academic and career goals that are important to them, so feeling that their goals are in jeopardy can erode their sense of wellbeing. I think that investing in providing early informational and academic support is very important. More TAs and time with TAs will also be helpful.

The second piece is helping students to achieve a sense of connection and community. Being part of a community, establishing a sense of belonging, and connectedness is critical to both academic success and student wellness. As a university, we need to encourage our population to cross demographic boundaries and connect with each other. Many of the undergraduate international students that I have seen say that they feel invisible and often excluded on this campus which is a problem.

What’s the biggest challenge in your role?

The biggest challenge for me is how to help international students who are feeling isolated and marginalized – how to help them build community and make connections. Facilitating a more integrated student body is a challenge. Right now we have pockets of different ethnic groups – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, we do need to be with people who are similar to us – but we also need to cross those demographic boundaries and to connect as a cohesive community.  We have been working with the Peer Support Centre, who have shown a lot of interest in fostering multicultural competency, to see what the student body can do to encourage a more inclusive student community. I do feel that these efforts need to come from students to be truly meaningful and successful.

I think as a university, our awareness of these issues of diversity, inclusion and equity awareness is growing. But, how do you encourage students to cross those demographic boundaries?

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work?

The most rewarding aspect is working with this wonderful and diverse group of students. I have learned so much from them! Being present with a student in their moment of need or self-doubt, and helping them connect with their strengths is so rewarding. Helping them name what is going on for them in terms of the environment when they are blaming themselves, changing these attributions is so important. To intervene, to be of service and be part of their journey of claiming space and building a sense of belonging, achieving their personal and academic goals is very rewarding.

What can people around campus do be more inclusive of students going through intercultural adjustment?

We all create the climate at Queen’s and so we bear the responsibility of creating an inclusive and equitable campus. We should try to create opportunities to bring diverse people together and demonstrate the importance of connection. We can work at learning about the experiences of international students not just by attending workshops, but actually applying what we have learned. But most importantly, we can connect at an individual level, be a welcoming and supportive student body and campus, and learn from each other.

We don’t necessarily need to leave Canada to learn about other people and places, we can do it right here on campus. Globalization has to begin right here, in our day-to day interactions!