Research Chat

Exploring how to Integrate and Support International Students into Canada’s Economy. Nelson Graham, Balsillie School of International Affairs

Episode Summary

In the 3rd episode of Research Chat Season 2, Nelson Graham, a PhD candidate in the Global Governance program of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, hosted by Wilfrid Laurier is interviewed by Ali Jasemi, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University at the Language & Literacy lab under Dr. Alexandra Gottardo’s supervision. Both researchers study the experiences of newcomers to Canada.

Episode Notes

The episode features:

Episode Transcription


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Shawna Reibling  00:04

Welcome to the second season of Research Chat. In this season graduate students share the details and challenges of their research work at Laurier. In this episode Ali Jasemi will interview Nelson Graham.



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Shawna Reibling  00:24

Ali Jasemi, pronouns he/him, is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University. His current research focuses on second language learning, mental health, and social adjustment in newcomer migrants. Ali's completing his data collection under the supervision of Dr. Alexandra Gottardo. Nelson Graham, pronouns he/him, is a PhD candidate in the Global Governance Program of the Balsilie Schools of International Affairs. His expertise centers around Canadian immigration policy, especially economic immigration streams, such as the immigrant entrepreneur, and international student programs. For the past six years, Nelson has been researching immigration and volunteering with multiple NGOs and community groups, in hopes to remove local level barriers for newcomers seeking to integrate into their new communities. His current research investigates the increasing role that higher education institutes have on the Canadian immigration system. 


Shawna Reibling  01:27

Nelson is a recipient of a SSHRC graduate doctoral fellowship and an Ontario Graduate Scholarship. Before joining the global governance program he completed his MA in geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. This SSHRC funded Master's investigated the barriers and opportunities facing immigrant entrepreneurs in Newfoundland and resulted in three academic publications. He also completed a Bachelor in Geography at the University of British Columbia. 


Shawna Reibling  01:54

Nelson is affiliated with Laurier's International Migration Research Center, and he currently holds a research position with a SSHRC funded project that investigates the psychological impacts of COVID-19 on newcomers in Ontario. Nelson Graham is beginning to collect his data with his supervisor, Dr. Margaret Walton-Roberts. Welcome to both of you. I'm glad you can be here to discuss your dissertation research as both of you are beginning active data collection.


Ali Jasemi  02:25

Thank you, Shawna and hello again, Nelson. It's a pleasure for me to be chatting with you again during this episode. So I'm just gonna jump into the questions. So as the first question I have what did you set out to discover in your research?


Nelson Graham  02:42

Well, thank you so much. Great to see you again, Ali. And Shawna, thank you for the really nice intro - I feel like my tires are pumped, and I'm ready to go. 


Nelson Graham  02:51

So to give you a bit of context Ali, with your question, Canada is a leader among developed countries in international students intake. So our country really focuses on bringing in international students all over the world. There's many reasons for this. They're quite equipped immigrants in the eyes of the government, they're learning the language, they're actively living in Canadian cities, etc. and there is some Stats Canada data out that shows that international student enrollment over the last 10 years has actually tripled within Canada. And one of the most popular disciplines that these international students are practicing is business management and administration. So this links nicely for the government to this concept of business ownership, which is obviously a great thing for the government as well, that employs individuals, employs newcomers themselves when they own a business. 


Nelson Graham  03:51

So to get back to the research question though, I'm very interested in understanding what the role of the universities are playing within the delivery of these immigration supports, and also entrepreneurial supports. So I'm trying to figure out if universities are actually meeting the needs of international students. And part of the reason why this role of the university is so important is because, due to international students immigration status, they don't always have access to settlement supports that other streams of immigrants would so they become very reliant on the university services and supports.


Ali Jasemi  04:34

Interesting. So basically, you're looking at a very specific part of this immigrant population that we have. So what is it that is behind this interest that you have in this topic? To look at it? 


Nelson Graham  04:48

Yeah, so long story, as I'm sure all dissertations are, but I researched a similar topic for my master's in Newfoundland and Labrador, as Shawna mentioned earlier in the intro. So, there I was looking specifically at the economic category of immigrant entrepreneurship. Newfoundland had just integrated some new immigration streams designed specifically for these individuals that were owning businesses. And in this research, though I didn't actually specifically focus on just international students, my data sample was half individuals that own businesses that had went to university in Newfoundland, and the other half owned businesses, but didn't go to the university. So some of them were refugees and other sorts of immigration streams. And I had some very interesting findings come out of this master's research, which then has developed into my dissertation now. 


Nelson Graham  05:44

And these findings were very widespread that individuals that were international students felt extremely well equipped to start a business, they felt like they had a good understanding of the rules and regulations and taxations of Canada and Newfoundland, they felt they had developed a really great social network, they felt they had access to funds learnt the language of English well, whereas individuals that were per se, coming out of the refugee stream felt they were quite kind of hamstrung by the government, and also just the lack of supports they were receiving. So this was a really interesting finding to see that the university was in a way acting as an integration and entrepreneurial service provider for these international students. And then subsequently, I had some publications with my fantastic supervisor during my master's, Dr. Y. Pottie- Sherman, and there just was some traction around this idea of what sort of services and supports is the university delivering? And also too, how is it shaping immigration policy in Canada? Because as we can see, this has become a real focus on immigration policy in Canada is this attraction of the international student population. And we see that as I discussed earlier, with the tripling of the intake of international students in just 10 years. So that's kind of the long, windy road of how I've come to research this topic.


Ali Jasemi  07:13

Wow, great. And so now, my question is, what is your proposed research process that you want to take to complete this?


Nelson Graham  07:25

Yeah, so kind of from a method standpoint, and at a timeline standpoint, I guess first, I did my comps over last fall, and then my comprehensive exams. And then I did my proposal writing and I defended that in the summer. And I've just recently gotten ethics approval. So next up is the actual data collection portion of this. So I am specifically as I said, researching the role of universities. So I'm very interested in this experience of international students. And Canada provides somewhat of a unique case study because each province is actively competing with each other to attract these international students that they view as ideal newcomers. 


Nelson Graham  08:10

And also, we see different immigration policies in place in different provinces in Canada. So I'm actually going to conduct a case study of Victoria BC, and Kitchener Waterloo [KW], Ontario. And then I'm going to look at international students that have come through or are currently enrolled at Wilfrid Laurier in KW, or UVic, in Victoria, and then I'm going to examine what these different experiences look like from integration and entrepreneurship support system, and also what different policies on a provincial level look like, and the actual structure of this research. So in each city, each of the two cities I'll interviewed 10 key informants. These key informants will be federal, municipal, provincial government officials discussing the topic of immigration policy centering around these international students. 


Nelson Graham  09:10

And then also there is a need to speak with university officials that are working in say, the internationalization office or with international students directly or within one of these entrepreneurial incubating hubs. And then finally, from the key stat/key informant standpoint, there's a need to talk to local immigration organizations to understand what sort of access these newcomers have to their services and what sort of barriers are set up for them so I can understand what the university actually needs to be supplying to these international students. And then once these key informant interviews are completed in each city, I will then move on to the international student interview process. And the parameters of these individuals are that they have to have moved to Canada within the last 10 years, just so it's more of a contemporary focus of what the current issues and opportunities are. And these individuals are required to have lived in Victoria or Kitchener Waterloo and have went to either Wilfrid Laurier, or UVic. 


Nelson Graham  10:19

So those are kind of the deciding factors of who these international students are. There's no country requirement or anything like that. And then once I've conducted these 20, international student interviews in each city, then there'll be the transcriptions the data analysis, etc. And then we'll use this information for conferences and publications and, of course, my dissertation.


Ali Jasemi  10:46

Interesting sounds like you have put a lot of thought you have everything figured out. 



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Nelson Graham  10:52

We'll see. 


Ali Jasemi  10:53

All right. So what are you hoping to shed some light on through this research process that you have?


Nelson Graham  11:02

That's a great question. There's so many things that I hope will come of this research. One thing that I am really excited about shining a light on is the contributions of international students that they're making in these cities, and also to the country as well. And I think that it's also important to shine a light on just how large of a role universities are beginning to play within the Canadian immigration system. This is something that isn't too common a practice across the world and it's kind of a more contemporary trend. So there's a real burning desire for me to understand, what are they doing right, what are they doing wrong? 


Nelson Graham  11:38

Some of my findings I had in Newfoundland were so incredibly positive about the role that universities were playing. So I think there's also a need to shine the light on what sort of benefits these universities are providing. Because obviously, universities are constantly working to secure budgets from the government and if universities are actually offering immigration services, well, that's something that the government needs to consider as well. And then finally, I'm just really hoping to shine some light on some of the limitations that international students and their dependents have as far as what sort of services they can access outside of the university. Because I think that that's a very important topic as well.


Ali Jasemi  12:24

Interesting, and you mentioned the burning desire to find some of these things. So it brings us to, does it resonate with you at a personal level? And, if it does, what aspects of your research does resonate?


Nelson Graham  12:40

Yeah, thanks, Ali. So... complicated question. 'Course, I'm personally not an immigrant in Canada, I was born here. So it's kind of a little bit of a two fold situation because as a White Canadian, I don't understand the experience of being an immigrant. So that's something that I'm constantly trying to be aware of within my research, especially given that I solely research immigration right now. 


Nelson Graham  13:06

The second part is I am a grad student. So at least I do have that student experience. I understand some of those struggles - I totally comprehend though that my struggles as a grad student are different than someone that is moved across the world to be a grad student. 


Nelson Graham  13:20

But to get back to this kind of burning desire questions... So I wasn't really too fascinated by university during my undergrad but my very final semester, I took something called a Directed Studies which is kind of an honours version in British Columbia you you conduct some research and create a paper out of it and then get a course credit. So I started researching the immigration scene in Kelowna, and the barriers that were existing there, because Kelowna is a very un-diverse city. And the more I researched this topic, the more I found it fascinating. And then I finished this directed studies and took a year off trying to figure out what to do with my life. And I started volunteering for a community group in Salmon Arm in British Columbia, which is where I'm originally from. 


Nelson Graham  14:06

We were working on settling Syrian refugees in Salmon Arm, and just hearing these lived experiences at these board meetings month by month and seeing the struggles from a bureaucratic standpoint of trying to get individuals into these cities and also trying to get them housed and all sorts of administrative issues that started to really kind of ignite this interest in you know, this is such an important part of Canada immigration and and how can we make it better and and this desire to actually understand more about the immigration system? So then I started my master's in Newfoundland and just talking with individuals for years about this stuff, it just has made me so much more interested in the topic year by year. And also getting the fortunate opportunity to sit in on some of these NGOs and help out with some of these immigration partnerships is kind of just continued to make me care more and more about the project. So...


Ali Jasemi  15:07

Excellent, fascinating. So there is something in the world called "COVID-19 pandemic", you may or may not know, so.. 


Nelson Graham  15:16

Never heard of it.


Ali Jasemi  15:17

Yeah, me neither actually. I don't know why I'm asking but, has it impacted your work?


Nelson Graham  15:24

Yes, in a big way. So two different ways. Both significant, though. So COVID, hit kind of right. As I was finishing my courses, fortunately, I don't know how I would have managed doing PhD economics courses by myself. So there's the isolation factor for sure. I mean, I'm out in Vancouver now and my cohort is all still in Ontario. So it's been pretty isolating to do a PhD from my bedroom, essentially, on my own, and also just kind of trying to stay on top of day to day responsibilities of a PhD. And I don't need to tell you guys, but a PhD is long, right? So it's tough to keep structure when when you're not on campus. 


Nelson Graham  16:05

But the real concern I have about the COVID-19 pandemic, and my research is this shift to online interviewing and Ali, this is something that we talked about during your interview, but your research. So there's this concern about from my standpoint, about discussing issues with vulnerable populations that can be very upsetting. And this idea of doing it through a computer screen, I think is very unpersonable. So I fear that there is a risk of not being there for your research participant, especially if they're a vulnerable population. I found during my master's research, sometimes these topics can bring a lot of emotions up to the surface. But I every single time felt like by the end of the discussion, these individuals felt heard, they felt supported. So I worry about not being able to quite be there the same way for my research participants and taking some measures, lots of lists of counseling services in each city that will be provided to these individuals. 


Nelson Graham  17:09

And then fortunately, most people being international students from that standpoint, they at least have benefits to access some of these counseling services. But I would say yes, that's my main concern about the COVID-19 slash how it's impacted my research is this next step, that actually haven't done yet, but sitting down and having to communicate through a computer screen instead of face to face across the table.


Ali Jasemi  17:34

Interesting. Again, I hear you loud and clear. Yeah, I'm dealing with the same thing. So who do you think, and also, who do you hope with benefits from your research?


Nelson Graham  17:48

Yeah, such an important questions. So two groups both interlinked, though. I hope that international students directly benefit from this research. There's the stressors of moving from your family, trying to learn languages, trying to learn education systems in different countries paying surreal tuition costs, and at times not having the same access to scholarships that Canadian students have. So I think that there is a real need to ensure that this research is demonstrating what needs to be done for international students, and also what is being done that works, right? And then continue to work on those best practices. 


Nelson Graham  18:29

So obviously, international students are a direct population that I hope benefit significantly from this research. And then one other population that I find is less discussed in the international student world of research is the dependents of international students or spouses. So I've been discussing a lot about the limitations of accessing certain settlement and integration services for international students. Well, the dependents or spouses and children of these families, I found during my master's, really struggled to get any form of services. So sometimes they weren't able to get the federal or provincial supports. They were blocked from accessing some municipal supports, but they're also not international students, right. So they don't have the university resources at their disposal. And obviously, there are some family services they can access. 


Nelson Graham  19:19

But I'm really hoping that through this research, it demonstrates to policymakers, and universities as well and local organizations, that it is a mistake to tie the delivery of services to newcomers directly to their immigration status, especially when Canada is so actively trying to retain these individuals. I think we need to step back at times and quit looking at things as data points and budgets and realize that these are human beings on the other end of this and their needs need to be met otherwise, there might not be the same desire to stay in Canada and Canada really relies on immigration, so we might as well make it as holistic as possible. 


Ali Jasemi  19:59

Absolutely. Very well said and I believe your research is very important because, based on the same report coming from Canada, they have issued over 5 million travel documents, a lot of them students coming to Canada and your research can shine some light further about their needs that they may have. And they may decide to stay and make a better Canada. Thank you for having this interview with me. And it was a pleasure chatting with you.


Nelson Graham  20:31

Thanks as always Ali great seeing you again. And that was our real pleasure to speak to you about my research, but more so yours. So take care and we'll see you soon.


Ali Jasemi  20:40

Thank you.


Shawna Reibling  20:41

Thank you, that was great.



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Shawna Reibling  20:52

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