U of T student Lena is learning and living, one country at a time

What makes U of T so unique is its great cultural diversity, and the vast number of people who have come from many different countries. Many students travel from opposite sides of the world to attend this school, getting the opportunity to learn in a completely new context.

When I first met Lena, we both shared our experiences of being international students and some of the challenges we’ve faced. I thought she would be the perfect person to talk about some of her experiences of being an international student, and to share some of these difficulties, and possible strategies for overcoming them. Because Lena loves to travel and explore, I also asked her about as her passion for travel and adventure. 

Name: Lena Zhao

Age: 20

Programs: Anthropology, Cognitive Science, Visual Studies

College: St. Mike's

1. U of T has a very diverse student population, with nearly 25% of the population being international students! When you were considering universities, what drew you to ultimately choosing U of T?

I had to choose between Australia and Canada. I didn’t seriously consider schools in the U.S. since it’s a bit of a hassle applying to universities there. Since Canada is further away from home for me, it was the obvious choice! I spent a year in University of Ottawa in my first year, and didn’t end up enjoying it too much. I applied to transfer to U of T, merely to try my luck! I like how big cities offer numerous places to explore, people to meet, and minds to share. As of now, I am really honoured to be a member of U of T. It has brought me friends who always encourage me to step up to challenges, topics and subjects I have always wanted to learn about. In short, U of T is like a mini world with all types of academics living in it (kind of like Hogwarts!)


2. Transitioning from high school to university is hard for anyone, but coming to a new country is especially difficult. Could you talk about some of the challenges you have faced, and how you have overcome them?

 My first year in Canada wasn’t really my first year of uni. I did my first year in Macau, studying Portuguese, which is completely different from my studies right now. It was pretty similar to the culture I grew up with, but it still took me a while to digest the surrounding information. Moving to Canada was a lot harder than I expected, which I also didn’t anticipate during the transition period of time.

 I think it is very important for us international students to accept the fact that our cultures are different regardless of the similarities evolved from globalization - the current culture of most places seems very much alike as a result of capitalism and globalization, in my opinion. We are, however, raised in our home cultures, which is unchangeable. So it is common and okay for us to feel uncomfortable when we are immersed in new places and other cultures. We are lucky to have the opportunity to experience other parts of the world. We are lucky enough to be able to see the differences between cultures and regions, and to experience this diversity. It helps us to not only understand our cultures, but ourselves better, and to therefore embrace ourselves as we are and also respect others for who they are.

Another thing I want to mention is that it is of the utmost important to find friends. Having friends around will always make everything much better. No matter how hard life gets (or how hard life might seem to us sometimes), love and support from friends make us feel like it is all worth it. Friends make a place home. But personally I don’t TRY to make friends. I find it difficult to MAKE friends. I would suggest newcomers to just go and enjoy whatever you like to do, and your friends will just show up along the way.


3. What would you say are some of the major differences between China and Canada?

It is much too big of a topic, I wouldn’t be able to sum it up! They are very similar in many ways: I guess capitalism has embedded itself everywhere.. Things are actually more similar than I’d anticipated. However, China and Canada are absolutely different, specifically in the ways people appreciate food and holidays, and even in their manners. In regards to food, Chinese culture is more traditional in the sense that they use more basic materials and herbs. In contrast, Canada is more of a mix of many different types of foods. Holidays are very family oriented, especially for traditional festivals like spring festival. Many Chinese people who have emigrated from more rural areas tend to miss this kind of family connection. I would also say that there is a noticeable difference in how people handle interpersonal relationships. In China, things seem more diplomatic whereas in Canada people are more straightforward.


4. Do you ever get homesick, or wish you had chosen to attend school closer to home? How do you deal with these kinds of feelings?

                 I guess I’m always missing home, but never regretted leaving home. I grew up in a boarding school where students only go home once a month, so I’m used to taking care of myself and I do enjoy being independent. My experience in boarding school has shaped who I am today - I really can’t take those aspects of myself for granted. So when I do miss home, I talk to my family, just to ask if things are alright back home and so on. We don’t talk all the time.  When I feel lost, I’d rather go travel than go back home.


5. Could you talk a bit about what it is like to learn and study in your second language?

Oh, it is likely my worst enemy. It has been hard but will only get better. Very often I feel like a complete idiot when trying to express something that I can’t manage to say in English. It’s so important to me that I can express myself, especially words that subtly change the meanings. You know that feeling when you just can’t find the right word for what you’re trying to say? That happens to me everyday. The anxiety of not expressing myself correctly is real!  Personally I always try my best to say what I mean, which I believe many people struggle with, regardless of their language. Sometimes I find myself blaming everything on the fact that I’m an ESL.

The worst part for me is taking notes. Some professors don’t use textbooks at all, and they don’t use Powerpoint. The only material we are tested on is lecture notes. But there are loads of technical terms that I haven’t even heard of. When native English speakers are having trouble writing down key terms, it is perhaps not so hard to imagine the struggles ESL students have.

But it has also pushed me to spend more time studying, sort of constantly fighting against my mind, trying to squeeze more terms into my brain. As of now, my suggestion for fellow ESL students would be making use of our writing centres. I visit SMC writing centre almost every week to ask for opinions on my writing, which has really improved in the last school year.


6. I know that you have traveled to many different places around the world! Where all have you been, and where has been your favorite place so far?

I loved Portugal! I studied one year of Portuguese in my one year of living and studying in Macau. My friends from that Portuguese class were on an exchange semester in Portugal this summer, so I took trains on and off all the way from Italy to Portugal to meet them. It was such an amazing experience traveling in this magical country with friends, where there are so many lovely people and beautiful places to see.

7. How did your passion for travel and adventure develop? Why do you think it is important for people to explore new places, and to experience different cultures?

I guess I’m just used to traveling! Growing up in a boarding school, I started to travel in between cities on my monthly breaks since grade five. I’ve been constantly moving in the last three years: from mainland China to Macau, to Ottawa, then Toronto.. My friends know that I actually feel more at home when I’m in hostels than when I’m settled in one place -a cheesy way to put it would be road is home. So I feel grounded when I’m traveling - it keeps me open-minded, being conscious and respectful. Many of my perspectives and ways of thinking were developed from solo traveling. And once you start, you really can’t stop!

The importance of exploring to me is perhaps that new places, new people and new cultures always remind me of how big the world is, and how many possibilities this world has to offer. But it doesn’t have to come from traveling. I think learning, traveling, trying new things are all ways of exploring. It’s really not dependent on how many places we have been, but on how open and humble we are to new environments and people. Traveling is only one way of exploring the world and ourselves, which I happen to love so dearly.


8. Could you share about your experience doing the summer exchange program? Would you recommend other students get involved with student exchange?

Yes, I would definitely recommend it. I did an Anthro course in Italy called Anthropology of Italian Foodways, which sounds brilliant just from the name, and happened to be under my major as well! Being in a foreign country for study is an absolutely different experience than just backpacking. It is again the question of exploring in depth or breadth. U of T Summer Abroad Programs offer many field trips, as least for my course, which really isn’t something individual travelers could experience. For example, we went to local cheese farms, vineyards, wineries, a spaghetti factory, a coffee factory, and a chocolate factory! It’s a great opportunity to travel, study and meet lifelong friends.


9. I know for me, adjusting to the Canadian winters has been one of the hardest parts of being an international student! How are you handling the cold weather?

I do lots of winter activities! Be it skiing, skating, tubing, hot chocolate drinking…“winter depression” is real! The best way is to get out of the house, and to go out and enjoy the winter! I mean.. why not? Since we are already in a country of snow! Eat well and keep your friends close!


10. What would you say to other international students who may be feeling homesick, or questioning their decision to come to U of T? Do you have any suggestions or advice you could offer?

When you feel stuck, the first question to ask shouldn’t be whether or not you made the wrong decision, but to ask yourself why you chose to come here. If you think the reason to be here is more important to you, then you haven’t got a problem yet. We all have no choice but to sacrifice parts of what we were used to in order to achieve our goals. The choice of what to compromise is on you. So make your goals clearer, learn more about yourself: what you want, and what you want to do with your life. If it’s too hard to know as of now, then try to avoid what you don’t want for now.

My suggestion would be hang in there just a little bit longer, see if you’re able to overcome your struggle. Most of the time, it is only fear that blinds us rather than serious problems. Please don’t let fear and worries stand in your way and waste your precious time.


11. What would you say is your favorite thing about Canada so far?

I like Canadian culture! I like how everyone tries to make the country a better, more lovely place for everyone to live. The politeness, manners, openness, beautiful nature are some of my favorite thing.  I really haven’t met anyone who doesn’t like Canada yet.