Each year, a new group of international students settle into life at the Northern Lights College in Dawson Creek.
Far away from their parents, friends and everything they’ve ever known, many of these students find their way here and stay in Canada long after they’ve graduated.
Over the years, a substantial number of new Canadians have gotten their start right here in the Mile Zero city, yet their stories are rarely told.
Two students recently shared their experiences with the Dawson Creek Mirror.
Prabahjot Kaur Sandhu is in her first year. Her friend, Harmandeep is in his second.
“I was so scared in the beginning,” Sandhu said.
Harmandeep meanwhile, with the benefit of one year of study under his belt already, was relishing the chance to help those like Kaursandhu who were perhaps a bit insecure and shy to start the school year.
“Whatever I do for others is completely altruistic,” Harmandeep said. “I don’t expect anything in return If they need help, I am happy to help. But everyone is settling in really well.”
Rewind to a few weeks ago though, and that wasn’t the case.
“I was disturbed,” Sandhu said. “I was thinking that I would not get good friends over here.”
She comes from a rural hamlet smaller than Dawson Creek in the Punjab province of India.
She battled through depression in her first few weeks in the northeast B.C., she said. Living this far away from home was quite a shock.
“This is quite a new experience for me,” she said. “I was depressed, I was homesick. For two or three days I was not even able to contact my parents. Then I was unhappy with my (living) arrangements.”
She started going for early morning walks both to clear her head and to get to know the lay of the land.
“Now I am quite happy here,” she said. “I really like the city. Now that I’ve thought about it, it’s going to be a good experience.”
Coming to Dawson Creek was never something she had dreamed of. But she did so on the advice of her father. She believes that studying in Canada will help her in the long run.
Kaursandhu arrived late summer totally sight unseen, without even having taken the time to check out the school’s website or research the city. There was too much else to do to prepare herself to leave her home.
“I never thought that I would be coming here but this is a good opportunity for me to show that I can do this. Now, I am happy and really, I can say that,” she said.
Both her and Harmandeep plan on finishing out their two-year visas and trying for a permanent residency card following their studies.
Kaursandhu is one of about 50 new international students from about 15 different countries who started this fall at the Dawson Creek campus, according Jennifer Johnson, director of international education at the college.
Roughly the same number of international students began the year in Fort St. John.
“It gets me kind of excited,” Johnson said. “There’s all these new people who come with their histories.”
It creates an eclectic atmosphere on the campus.
Walk into the main building during any weekday afternoon and you’ll find people from different cultures mingling with one another around the pool table, or playing table tennis. They’re talking and having fun, but they’re also learning about their differences and similarities, Johnson said.
One particular example of students breaching their own cultural divides sticks out in her mind. It was when students from India held a festival on the campus.
“It was an exciting, intercultural learning moment for everybody,” Johnson said. “What was (most) exciting about it was it tweaked the interest of domestic students and support staff. When they saw the music and the colours, they became curious and they came up to say what’s going on?”
Encounters like that aren’t confined to the campus because international students, especially those new to the city, are encouraged to go off campus and seek out authentic “Canadian” experiences.
This puts them in touch with other international students who already know the town and region. In this way, they usually serve as de facto tour guides and in some cases, pseudo recruiting officers for various community groups.
Johnson said she has heard a lot of positive feedback from residents in the city about international students pitching in to volunteer, getting involved with community groups or, like in one case, teaching parishioners at a local church potluck how to make curry.
“It’s a recurring, positive response that I am hearing from people when I talk to them about their experience with students and it really fires me up,” Johnson said.
Her enthusiasm for what she calls her “dream job” is infectious. “(This job) allows me to do my life work, which is creating opportunities for peace,” Johnson said.
— follow @mike_carter05 on Twitter.