From an interview with Avani Singh, Banking Advisor, RBC.
Going abroad to study was a dream for Avani. Only a handful of people from her small town in India had ever left the country for their education. Yet when she was 16, she decided that she would go to North America for better opportunities. For the next three years of high school, she sought as much mentorship as she could and applied to universities in the United States and Canada. Based on the quality of a Canadian education, and its reputation as a welcoming and peaceful country, Avani came here to study finance at University of Toronto (U of T). She shares her story of overcoming challenges, discovering new experiences, helping international students, and starting a career in Canada.
As an international student, challenge is a word you hear and experience every day. I came to Canada alone; I had no family here, and no personal connections in Canada. It was essentially just packing my bags, moving halfway across the world and figuring out what to do from there: what to wear in the Canadian winters, learning to buy groceries and cook your own food, the basics of banking in Canada, navigating the nuances of this new culture, and being an adult living alone for the first time far from home.
Fitting in while staying true to yourself
I came to study at University of Toronto and was swept away by the school’s grandeur, Toronto and Canadian culture in general. For the whole of first year, I focused on adapting and fitting in: I didn’t participate in any Indian cultural activities. As a result, I ended up feeling disconnected – likeI didn’t really know who I was anymore. I had this image of myself that was not the same as who I was.
As a newcomer, you can feel stuck between two cultures, two countries. Most international students have developed the social skills to fit in and they blend in very well. That’s the way I was. But it made me question my culture and my identity; it made me question myself a lot.
I felt homesick the first year I was away from home, and sad that I was not taking part in the festivals and celebrations that had been so important to me back home. Over the next couple of years, I reached out to student groups on campus and other support groups who essentially hosted big Indian celebrations like Diwali and I joined the Indian Student Society at U of T. That helped my cultural experiences take shape.
Exploring new academic paths
When I came to study at U of T, my initial plan was to get a finance degree, with perhaps a computer science major. I ended up graduating with a degree in management and strategy, which is quite different – a field of business that I never thought I would go into. But over the years, I realized that’s where my interest and passions lay.
One of the best things about U of T, especially in the first year, was that I got the chance to explore courses that you wouldn’t traditionally think go together, like theater and finance. The way they structured it was that you had to take a certain number of classes in different fields: science and technology, humanities, and languages. This ensured that every student was getting as much exposure to different interests and different courses as possible.
Many soft skills that I learned in these courses have actually made me who I am today. Finance, Management and Strategy were my main focus, but I also took a course in first year on reviewing theater, and I got to attend my first Toronto International Film Festival. As an international student, it was such a great experience that gave me insight into Toronto’s culture – into a different world.
Finding allies: Introduction to RBC On Campus team
I got involved with the University of Toronto Students’ Union that supports over 44,000 undergraduate students. I wanted to help new students make their transition to university life much easier than mine had been. In my particular role, I built partnerships with organizations and external partners that shared our goal of helping students.
During this time I was introduced to the RBC On Campus team and I quickly realized that we were doing similar work. We could work together on one of the biggest challenges facing students: financial literacy. There’s a lack of personal finance and financial literacy in the international student community.
For example, despite the fact that I was taking very difficult finance classes, until I met the RBC On Campus team, for the life of me, I could not have told you what my account packages looked like or even how my credit card worked. There were lots of students in the same boat as me.
So we did a whole financial literacy week with the RBC On Campus team, offering free workshops to help international students understand their finances. It was a great partnership. The RBC On Campus branch was a very friendly environment: a very open, judgment-free, and safe space where you could talk about things like financial worries. It was very casual, very personalized; you could ask them about anything and they would give you advice.
They also host a lot of learning sessions, like Investing 101: which essentially explains what the different ways of investing are in Canada, what is an RRSP is, what is a TFSA, things that you hear all the time, but no one has actually taken the time to explain it to you in a way that you will understand.
You don’t even have to have a bank account with RBC in order to attend these free sessions; if you want to learn, you are welcome. It was basically helping students, and it wasn’t even just banking. They are an ally and a support for students and student wellness.
If you’re applying for your study permit for Canada through the Student Direct Stream (SDS) program, you need a GIC (Guaranteed Investment Certificate) account in order to show that you have the funds to cover your expenses in Canada. Students from India can now open their GIC account with RBC.
If you’re a newcomer, you definitely want to build the right support systems and the right list of resources to support you for whatever needs you may have in the next four years. The RBC On Campus team is definitely on that list of resources.
Finding more ways to help students
Along with financial literacy, the other areas I focused on in my role with the Student Union were student wellness, accessibility, and food security. It can often be difficult for students to find the resources they need, so I brought my own experiences as an international student to help address the gaps in the education experience.
I am very proud of the work we did reshaping the Students’ Union Financial Assistance. Designed to alleviate financial barriers that stand in the way of students reaching their goals, we restructured student aid into seven categories to address student needs: The Book and Academic Supplies Bursary, The Exam Deferral Bursary, The Academic Pursuits Grant, The Health and Wellness Bursary, The Accessibility Bursary, The Transit Bursary and The Emergency Bursary.
Without this financial aid, some students found themselves having to choose between paying for books or buying nutritious food. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit we got hundreds of applications from students who suddenly didn’t have a job and had to pay their emergency rent or didn’t have food. Thankfully, the emergency bursary was there.
Starting my career after university
The transition from university student to a working professional can be a major challenge. In my fourth year, while working with the RBC On Campus team, they helped me expand my personal finance knowledge and propel my professional development. They directed me to a lot of great resources such as Prepped, an RBC Ventures initiative that provides information and resources on everything from following up with a recruiter to how to write your cover letter. It helped me improve my resume and figure out how to get a job after leaving school.
They were there for me, supporting me and guiding me; it was great. When I was working on my professional development with the team, I began to appreciate the overall RBC culture, their initiatives and resources, and how much they cared about their clients. I realized that this was an organization I wanted to work for, and today, I am proud to be a Banking Advisor at RBC in Toronto.
Find the time to enjoy your student years
As an international student, be open to experiences. Although it can get overwhelming, this is a great part of your life so, don’t forget to enjoy it. You are going to have a lot of changes in your life and it’s very easy to close up and feel scared. Get out there and take part in lots of activities in your academic and personal life because you never know what you could be good at or what gives you happiness until you actually experience it.
There will be challenges, there will be setbacks, but there will also be celebrations and achievements. You’ll make connections and find communities that will be with you for a lifetime. There are a lot of great resources you can use to elevate your experience and make it a great one. Don’t be nervous or embarrassed about not knowing something. There are no stupid questions.
Also, take time to stay in touch with your feelings, with what brings you happiness and always ask yourself: are you where you want to be, is this making you happy? Remember to take a moment to appreciate where you are and what you are doing as much as possible because time flies by so fast.
I’ve been here in the country for almost five years and I don’t know where the time went.