Canadian students need to get moving.

The vast majority of post-secondary students are entering the workforce without international experience, at a time when employers are placing greater importance on global awareness and intercultural competencies.

By some estimates, only 11% of Canadian undergraduates study aboard, compared to 33% in France, 29% in Germany and 16% in the U.S. For many, the cost of studying abroad and lack of credit transfers holds them back. But that may also shut them out of a fast-changing world.

“Given geopolitical and trade realities, Canada urgently needs to cultivate students with open minds and global competencies that can help to advance Canada’s diplomatic and trade relationships abroad,” said Larissa Bezo, president and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education.

In less than two decades, the number of international students in Canada jumped 467%, to almost 600,000 across all levels of study. Nearly 70% of them study at post-secondary institutions, accounting for roughly 14% of all enrolment. Now, Canada wants to extend this momentum to outbound mobility, sending more Canadian students abroad.

Already, outbound student initiatives are gaining traction around the world. In the United Kingdom, the government plans to double the percentage of post-secondary students’ overseas experience. In the U.S., Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has hailed American students abroad as “citizen ambassadors,” adding that “international education should be part of every student’s academic career.” And in France, international student mobility is seen as a social justice issue.

Canadian academic leaders have called for the government to increase the percentage of Canadian students studying abroad to 25% in the next decade. Ottawa has begun to take notice.

In August, the federal government announced a $95 million, five-year pilot program under the International Education Strategy to encourage more Canadian students to gain overseas experience and build networks. The initiative will prioritize study programs in Asia and Latin America and is expected to benefit up to 11,000 Canadian post-secondary students. Half of the funds will be targeted at increasing participation of underrepresented groups, such as low-income and Indigenous students.

Canada needs more students like D’Arcy White, who interned last summer at a Chinese law firm in Shanghai. Before setting off, he was told a Chinese proverb — “It is better to travel 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 books.” He has taken it to heart. This semester, White, a law school student at the University of Toronto, will return to China to study at Tsinghua University in Beijing on a Canadian government scholarship. The opportunity to study in China, he says, comes with immerse challenges and opportunities that create both a sense of energy and intrigue.

“I think that stepping outside of one’s own environment ought to be a key part of a well-rounded education, especially for those in the social sciences and law,” he said. “Gaining a deeper understanding of China is becoming more important for tomorrow’s leaders.” While at Tsinghua, he will study language and Chinese law.

A large body of research shows that international exposure will prove beneficial to students. It increases students’ creativity, boosts their employability and helps cultivate empathy.

For many prominent public figures, overseas experiences have had an imprint on their careers. Before founding Apple, Steve Jobs took a months-long pilgrimage to India, a trip that gave him the spiritual fuel to later lead a legendary company. For Vera Wang, a celebrated American designer who once mulled a career in figure skating, studying in Paris during her junior year helped spark her love for fashion.

Despite the benefits, a number of factors have discouraged Canadian students from going abroad. Chief among them: cost. A 2016 survey from CBIE found that 85% of the respondents were interested in studying abroad, but 80% would require financial assistance to do so. Other major concerns cited included possible delayed graduation and course credit requirements.

In addition, the survey revealed that most Canadian students tended to choose countries that were culturally similar to Canada. France was the top destination, hosting 14% of Canadians studying abroad that year, followed by the United Kingdom (9%) and the U.S. (8%).

When Justin Raposo, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, debated where to go for an exchange abroad, he considered countries like Australia and New Zealand. But in the end, he settled on Japan instead because it would offer him a variety of different cultural experiences.

“Being able to engage with alternative perspectives, ideas and cultural backgrounds really does add something.” He noted that it’s important to “work through differences and understand you don’t know everything and your perception isn’t always the right one.” That understanding, he says, will eventually help him better navigate the complexity of the modern world.

For Canada to succeed in an increasingly globalized world, its workforce must be equipped with the cultural competencies that can help to diversify trade and deepen ties with emerging economies.

The CBIE’s Bezo says cultivating these opportunities is crucial to Canada’s future. “The next generation of private and public-sector Canadian leaders will require international experience, intercultural understanding and skills to excel in tomorrow’s inter-connected and interdependent world.”

Owen Guo is a graduate student in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He worked for the summer of 2019 in RBC’s thought leadership group.

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