WUSC brings students from war-torn countries to Canada to pursue higher education
BY LORI BONA HUNT
Prof. Robert St-Amant admits that making the world a better place isn't easy, especially when you can help only one person at a time. But to that one person, what he and others at Collège d'Alfred and throughout the U of G community are doing makes a world of difference.
“We're giving someone a future essentially,” says St-Amant, who teaches international development and is head of Alfred's chapter of World University Service of Canada (WUSC), one of the country's leading development agencies. WUSC teams with students, faculty and institutions to internationalize Canada's universities and increase knowledge of global issues.
Each year for the past five years, the Alfred chapter has brought a student from a war-torn country to study at the French-speaking college through WUSC's student refugee program. The WUSC chapter on the main U of G campus has been doing the same thing for the past two decades.
The only one of its kind in Canada, WUSC's student refugee program was launched in 1978, based on the belief that knowledge is the key to an equitable society and that all people should have the opportunity to acquire education and skills.
Students come from countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, Zaire, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Rwanda in hopes of pursuing higher education in an environment free of violence or fear.
“These students are brought to Canada and given the same resources and the same opportunities as any other student,” says Dudley Gibbs, special events co-ordinator for the College of Arts, who has volunteered with Guelph's WUSC chapter since 1986.
“It really echoes the notion that we are one world, that we are all on this Earth together. The program opens both doors and minds, benefiting not only the students coming here but the institutions as well by helping to provide a world view.”
Since the program's inception, more than 800 refugee students have come to Canada via the WUSC program, at the rate of 45 to 50 a year.
St-Amant says people often ask: “You're helping maybe 50 students a year and there are more than 20 million refugees in the world — how can this possibly make a difference? Why do it?”
His response? “For one thing, it helps convey the plight of refugees to the eyes of the public, which is very important. But it also brings a richness of the human experience to our campuses that cannot be matched. We teach about international and human development issues, and we have people right here who can talk about such things based on first- hand experience.”
Local WUSC chapters handle all the details involved in sponsoring students and cover their first year of living and university expenses. At both Alfred and the main U of G campus, some financial support is provided by student governments, and the chapters also do fundraising.
“The most eye-opening part for me was the mounds of paperwork involved in bringing a person to Canada,” says Chris Jess, a third-year English student who assists in co-ordinating the student refugee program for the Guelph WUSC chapter. “It can also be difficult for students to adjust to a new culture and school all at once,” he says.
“Overall, most of the students feel fortunate to be here. Many of them are from countries that have been affected by war, so by the time they arrive, they've already gone through so much, endured so many battles. It's amazing to learn about the challenges they've faced. We tend to forget how incredibly fortunate we are as a country sometimes.”
After the first year, the students are responsible for supporting themselves, including paying their own tuition. Once they're here, they're considered “WUSC alumni,” and most keep in contact with their local chapter.
“We've had students go on to graduate school or stay in Canada and work,” says Gibbs. “They'll drop by my office every now and then, or I'll get e-mails saying: ‘This is what I'm doing now.'”
The student refugee program is just one of many international initiatives and projects sponsored by WUSC, which was established in 1939 in response to the need to encourage international understanding in a war-torn world.
In addition to supporting local WUSC chapters, the agency offers students and faculty numerous unique training and educational opportunities overseas. U of G has been involved in such programs since the 1960s. This includes an annual international seminar for which 20 to 30 Canadian students and two faculty members are selected to participate in an intensive six-week educational tour of a developing country. The tours began in 1948.
Gibbs accompanied such a group to his home country of Zimbabwe in 1987. He went as a volunteer for WUSC and even took along his eight-month-old son. “I was born there, grew up there, but hadn't been back to the country for nine years because of the politics,” he says.
This year, U of G student Delainey Grieg is one of 20 students nationwide selected for the seminar. The second-year international development major will tour Burkina Faso, will be paired with a Burkinabe student and will take part in a group research project on HIV/AIDS, agriculture and gender equality.
WUSC is governed by a board of directors, whose members include president Alastair Summerlee, who is vice-chair, and St-Amant, who represents Ontario. Last year's chair was Connie Rooke, U of G's former associate vice-president (academic).
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