University of Calgary

In profile: Personal connections key to international student’s experience

UToday HomeMarch 25, 2013

By Carly Moran

PhD candidate Hongmei Tong believes developing a sense of belonging is critical to the international student experience. Photo by Riley BrandtPhD candidate Hongmei Tong believes developing a sense of belonging is critical to the international student experience. Photo by Riley BrandtHongmei Tong still remembers the first day she arrived in Calgary as an international student. The PhD candidate in the Faculty of Social Work arrived two weeks into September after her paperwork got delayed in processing. The delay meant that Tong missed her graduate student orientation, so she began her student experience at the university by looking everything up on her own.

Coming from Fudan University in China, where she obtained her Master in Sociology and taught as a lecturer, Tong’s English wasn’t overly strong at first. But the resourceful student wasn’t deterred by the drastic change in culture, or the challenges of her completely different surroundings. Her supervisor Daniel Lai, PhD, was a strong supporter, as were other faculty members and professors.

“Daniel assisted me a great deal from the very beginning by giving me a mini-orientation and introduction to the university,” recalls Tong. “He also helped me learn what I needed to know while I study here, like how to obtain a SIN number for the purpose of working on campus as a research assistant.”

Tong’s introduction to the University of Calgary came from Lai, whom she first met in 2004 while he was teaching a course as a visiting professor for her Master of Social Work program through the University of Hong Kong. The two would cross paths again three years later — striking up a conversation that would change the course of Tong’s life.

“I talked to Daniel about my interest in doing my PhD in gerontology,” says Tong. “He suggested that I take a look at the University of Calgary as an option based on some of the research coming out of the Faculty of Social Work.”

Tong took his advice and began a search on the University of Calgary, quickly discovering the strong research on aging populations in Canada and China being conducted by researchers in Calgary.

It was this research that initially attracted Tong to study internationally, and, wanting to broaden her perspective, she made a quick decision and applied. That was almost five years ago, and Tong wouldn’t change anything about her international experience.

Today, Tong is a strong example of balance and commitment; she is sole caregiver to her two small children — one of whom was born in Calgary — and continues to manage the demands of her PhD program (her husband currently remains in China).

Since beginning her PhD program, Tong has presented at 21 conferences and has published six peer-reviewed journal papers as the first author or a co-author, making her top among the graduate students in the social work discipline. She attributes much of her success to the close friendships she has developed here in Calgary, which have led to strong social support for her and her family.

“Building a social network helped build my confidence and allowed me to connect to Canadian life in a way that wouldn’t have been possible on my own,” says Tong. “I really feel that sense of belonging is critical to the international student experience.”

Although Tong admits that it takes time to develop supportive relationships in a new country, she also believes that international study is much richer when you take the time to develop those close bonds.

“International students have to be open to new experiences and people in their chosen country of study, and not isolate themselves,” says Tong. “Studying across cultures opens up new ideas that you may not be exposed to if you remain at home. This diversity of thought can really enrich how you conduct and view your own research.”

“All of your experiences as an international student will contribute to your future, if you take full advantage of them,” adds Tong. “Making those connections is the first step.”


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