As the school year begins, approximately 20,000 international students will be attending the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University.
Ali Najaf, a recent graduate from SFU’s Beedie School of Business, understands some of the difficulties that many newcomers will encounter.
That's because in 2012, he hopped on a plane and travelled more than 10,000 kilometres from his home in Lahore, Pakistan, to attend university in Canada.
At first, he found university life in Canada very strange.
“People were calling the professor by his first name,” Najaf recalled in an interview at the Georgia Straight office. “I never called a professor by their name. We always used Sir and Madam.”
It took him about three weeks to get used to referring to one of his instructors as Steve.
Najaf, 25, attended boarding school in Pakistan before moving to Burnaby. He had never ridden on a public bus so it was baffling when he started doing this in Metro Vancouver.
“The first time I took transit, I got lost,” he said with a laugh.
Najaf immersed himself in student life, living in residence and volunteering enormous amounts of his time to help others who had come from abroad to study at SFU.
He credits SFU’s residence life coordinator, Patrick Bourke, for helping him improve his accent.
Najaf supervised a floor of 40 student residents, hosted annual cultural galas, and organized a conference for 200 students in the co-op program.
In addition, he volunteered as a career coach with the business school, offering advice on creating résumés and cover letters. And he served on the SFU senate.
“I believe life is not made by the number of days you live, but the number of lives you inspire,” Najaf said.
For his efforts, he received the Beedie Business Award for International Students and the SFU International Award for Intercultural Engagement.
Najaf spoke to the Straight because he wanted to clear up misconceptions about international students.
First off, he emphasized that they don’t all come from wealthy families.
“A lot of my friends work so hard,” he said. “They work 20 hours or 30 hours to pay their tuition fees. It’s very expensive.”
At UBC, international students in undergraduate programs pay roughly seven times as much tuition as domestic students and permanent residents. For a normal undergraduate course at SFU, international students pay four times as much as their domestic counterparts.
Secondly, Najaf said that international students often don’t get involved in the community because they’re shy and they fear they’ll be rejected by others.
He maintained that international students enrich the education of Canadians in university by bringing languages, customs, art, food, and music from around the globe.
However, he advised newly arriving international students that they might be surprised by Canadians’ perceptions of their countries.
For instance, he’s encountered people who didn’t expect that someone from Pakistan could speak English. He had to tell them that he had been studying it since Grade 1 in Pakistan. He also speaks Punjabi, Urdu, and Hindi.
In addition, Najaf said that some Canadians are under the false impression that there’s a war going on all the time in Pakistan. While there may be turmoil in certain regions, life was very peaceful for him and his family in Lahore.
He also said that there are McDonald’s restaurants in his home country, which has come as a shock to some.
When asked what else he would like people to know about Pakistan, Najaf replied: “We are a country of achievers and people who sacrifice. Pakistan is a country that has a lot of philanthropy.”
To cite one example, he noted that the recently elected prime minister, Imran Khan, has created hospitals in Lahore and Peshawar. The former cricket star's mother had cancer, which led him to raise money for the first one. It helps people with cancer.
“He’s inspired me a lot,” Najaf revealed. “His determination of not giving up has made me strong.”
Najaf’s family is in the rice business back home and he’s the first to attend university either in Pakistan or abroad. A “prime reason” for choosing Canada was the lack of racism.
He said that he never experienced racism in Pakistan but he read about it in newspapers and in history books, particularly in connection with how the British ruled during colonial times in South Asia.
Since moving to Canada, he’s noticed that he faces a lot more questioning about his past if he wants to cross the border to go to the United States.
“Canada is one of the few countries that accepts people—diversity is not only accepted but celebrated," he said. "That was something that brought me here.”
He continues offering help to international students, even though he’s about to begin a full-time job. But he’s not through with postsecondary education.
In the future, Najaf hopes to pursue a master’s degree in international relations and public policy—and that would make him the first person in his family to attend graduate school.