Marileine Ngo Mbeleg is currently an accounting student at MacEwan University, and many of you have probably met her, as she has been a barista at the campus Starbucks since she began her studies. She is originally from Cameroon, but she grew up in France before deciding to pursue a university education here in Edmonton.
“The economical situation [in France] was really bad, and even there, I was an international student, because getting citizenship is really, really difficult there. You have to be a French citizen to have access to certain jobs, so, for me, it was a waste of time,” she says.
Her friend recommended the University of Alberta, but when the process took too long, she began to look for other schools in the area. The transfer procedure for international students can be lengthy, as they must submit several pieces of paperwork to the Canadian Embassy before approval. Ngo Mbeleg found that MacEwan processed her application a lot quicker.
She immediately took a job at the campus Starbucks to pay for classes and rent. Working at Starbucks means that she doesn’t have to apply for a work visa as long as she is following part-time hours regulations.
Shared challenges can lead to close friendships between international students, says Ngo Mbeleg.
“Like 90 per cent of my friends are international students,” she says. “I got a lot of my friends working [at Starbucks], but I think we click because we have the same background, if I may say. We have the same stress. We have to work instead of going out. For other people, it can be hard to understand [that].”
Don’t let that fool you, though: her cheery disposition has gained her friends of all kinds. She explains that staying at the school library to study is impossible, because too many people will stop to chat with her.
For her, the challenges of international education have been worth the struggle, and she says that most of the difficulty was at the beginning of her move. Although domestic students may not think twice about heading to a movie or ordering a meal, these are some of the things that international students may find the hardest to navigate.
“The first would be the language,” she says. “When I came, I remember I spent a week at home without eating, because I was so scared to go to the grocery shop by myself. I think it’s the language and, second, living away from your family. For those people who are really used to staying around their relatives and parents and things like that, that can be really challenging. I know some international students who got here, and they just turn out to be something else, they forgot why they were here in the first place.”
“So, I feel as an international student, you have to be twice as responsible as someone who lives here, because here you have people who will [look out for you]. But when you’re here alone, you really have to know what your focus is, what are your goals, and why are you here. Otherwise, it’s so easy to get lost,” she says.
Despite these challenges, Ngo Mbeleg has seemingly flourished at MacEwan and has applied for graduation in the spring. She’s started looking for accounting jobs in Edmonton, and she says that she is excited to start building her portfolio.
“I feel like Canadian education is one of the best [kinds of education]. It’s really recognized everywhere. It doesn’t matter that you only study in English. Even with just a diploma, I think it’s really beneficial for me,” she says. “That’s why I push on and really try to finish.”
MacEwan International is a university department that emphasizes opportuni- ties for international students and aims to assist them while they go through the transfer process and adjust to university life. They partner with program advisors to ensure that students understand the requirements of the university and know how to complete important paperwork.
“Upon arrival, volunteers and MacEwan International staff help students understand university systems and services, as well as obtaining their Alberta Health Care insurance coverage. We offer orientation and integration seminars to help students understand university and Canadian life,” says Erin Wight, manager of International Student Advising Services.
Not only do MacEwan International staff try to recognize the more adminis- trative needs of the international students, but they also look for spots where fun or informational sessions could be of service — things like the quintessential Canadian hockey game, a family-style Thanksgiving dinner, or university events throughout the year.
“Last year, there was a car accident that [included] some international students, so this year, we teamed up with SAMU [the Students’ Association of MacEwan University] and AMA [Alberta Motor Association], and we brought someone to talk to our international students about driving in the winter, because it’s not something you always think about . . . We try to do events to make the experience better,” says Michelle Lam, MacEwan International project and event planner.
In the future, Lam would like to implement more peer mentorship programs so that international students can meet up and offer support to one another in a casual environment.
Ngo Mbeleg, however, didn’t find that MacEwan International offered a lot of assistance to her. Although she sees the benefit of the department as a resource, she explains that a lot of international students end up making their own way.
“I navigated it by myself . . . I think it can be really hard for first-year people coming here, because you don’t know how things work, and you don’t know have any friends that can tell you to do this or go there. Maybe it’s because I didn’t request help from [MacEwan International], but overall, I didn’t find them that helpful in my situation,” says Ngo Mbeleg.
“But I didn’t have a hard time making friends, because I talk a lot,” she adds, laughing.
Though many of the department’s services are geared towards helping international students, MacEwan International’s resources are available to all students on campus. Anyone who is interested in spending a semester abroad, or just wants to become more of a global citizen, can find resources there.
At the very least, give Ngo Mbeleg a quick hello when you grab your next caramel macchiato.
Photo by Casey Pollon.