Immigrants Need Support, Says Prof

Feeling welcome depends on country’s immigration policies

Saba Safdar

As an immigrant from Iran, psychology professor Saba Safdar knows what it’s like to move to a new country, learn a new language and make new friends. Inspired by her own experience, she is looking at how Iranian, Indian and Russian immigrants adapt to their new lives in Canada, the U.S. and several European countries. Canada is an ideal country to study the immigrant experience, she says, because of its large immigrant population. Many of her own students are immigrants themselves or first-generation Canadians.

Immigrants who feel supported by the local population and their own immigrant communities tend to adapt more easily, she says, as do immigrants who can speak the dominant language. “Immigrants tend to do better when there is support within the larger society,” says Safdar. “That support could come as official support such as community services for immigrants.”

Adaptation can be measured in a number of ways, such as adjusting to a new school environment. “Children tend to acculturate at a faster rate because of the exposure they get in school,” says Safdar. First-generation immigrants tend to maintain strong ties to their native language and culture, whereas their children may lose contact with their ethnic community.

An immigrant’s experience in a new country also depends on the country’s immigration policies. When immigrants arrive in the U.S., says Safdar, “They are expected to identify with American culture, to fit in and assimilate. Canada, however, has a different policy: an official multicultural policy. Immigrants can choose to integrate, assimilate or separate, depending on a number of factors.”

Immigrants in Canada report less discrimination, easier adjustment and fewer physical and psychological problems than immigrants in the U.S., the U.K and the Netherlands, she adds. “But this doesn’t mean that immigrants in Canada do not have any problems. They still have a number of issues: low level of employment, not having employment that matches their expertise and issues surrounding language difficulties.”

Safdar’s secondary research focus is on the academic and social adjustment of international students, and examines the motivating factors in choosing a university.

In her analysis of international students at U of G and other Canadian universities, she found that the factors that affect how immigrants adjust also apply to international students, even though both groups have different motives for moving to another country. International students often plan to return to their countries of origin after completing their studies, whereas immigrants move permanently to start a new life, often bringing their families.

The degree to which international students feel welcome depends on their level of contact with other students and access to support services offered by their university, such as academic counseling and help finding a place to live. “Guelph is a great campus for international students to take advantage of the services we provide,” says Safdar.

Along with Prof. Brent McKenzie, Marketing and Consumer Studies, Safdar looked at business students at U of G, the University of Western Ontario and universities in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to find out what drove them to attend a particular school.

“There is some level of consistency between these students,” she says. “They come with the aim of gaining academic experience that will help them to function at the global level. If you study business, it’s transferable; it’s not specific to one country. You can work in your home country or you can work internationally.” When asked why they chose a particular school, international students said the strongest motivating factor was the school’s reputation.

In addition to academic reputation, international students also consider social factors when choosing a university. Chinese business students, for example, said they wanted to attend a university where they would receive a “true Canadian experience,” says Safdar, adding that they wanted to practice their English in a city that didn’t have a large Chinese population like Toronto and often chose smaller universities. Guelph is close enough to Toronto for them to experience life in a big city, she says, and the University is small enough to provide them with one-on-one contact with their classmates and professors.