From an interview with Bermet Nurkamilova
At the age of 18, Bermet Nurkamilova followed her dream to live abroad by moving to Canada as an international student. Her first year in college was a huge adjustment as she faced culture shock and homesickness. Although tempted to return home, she persevered—pushing herself out of her comfort zone to make friends, find an internship, graduate from college, and start university studies. Here she shares her personal struggles as an international student and the lessons she learned to excel both academically and professionally.
I was born in Bishkeck, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan in central Asia. I moved to Canada alone as an international student in 2018, one week after I’d turned 18. Ever since I was a child, I’d wanted to study abroad. I was very influenced by western culture growing up and watching TV shows about western life so it was my dream to live in a country like the United States.
I’m the youngest in my family and the first one to go abroad. So, my parents supported me but it was a very hard decision for them. There were arguments about whether I should go or not. But I had to follow my dream.
I was planning to apply to schools in the U.S., but a friend of my sister’s visiting from Canada suggested I go to Canada because she thought it was safer for a girl, had better education, and is a great country. So, I decided to apply to a Canadian college.
I wanted to attend university, but advanced English language skills are required to apply, and I had pre-intermediate English skills. When I wrote my TOEFL examination, I didn’t do very well. The educational advisor in my home country told me about Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. I decided to apply, and was accepted into its business finance program. I took this opportunity, and made plans from there.
Culture shock in the first year of college
I lived in my college residence during my first year but, honestly, it wasn’t a good experience for me. It was a big culture shock. My roommates were pretty loud and there were lots of parties. At the same time, I would think it’s just like the movies and I’m okay in this kind of atmosphere. But then when I tried to study, it was so frustrating!
In my home country, I was raised in a strict conservative family. Our whole society is conservative. We don’t really like parties. We prefer to be in calm spaces. But in London, Western University and Fanshawe College are known as party schools. That was a big surprise for me. When I first arrived in the city, it was homecoming, and all of London was purple and everywhere people were partying. I thought—oh my God, what is happening here?
Those first months were hard, and I was very homesick. I would talk every day to my family to stay connected. Each time, I would cry and then wipe my tears before talking so that they wouldn’t see. I considered giving up and returning home. I thought, once my first semester ends, I’ll go back. But my dad told me to stay because this was my lifelong dream. He said why would you give up just because of some obstacles in your way?
Learning to adjust to Canadian life
That first semester in college, I was pretty quiet. I would not talk to people because I was afraid I’d make a mistake in English and people would laugh. But in my second semester, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and took initiative. I started talking to people, doing volunteer work, and connected with other international students who were like me—also too afraid to talk. I needed to take the lead. This is how I established my circle of friends in London.
I learned a lot in my first year living in Canada, like how to do taxes, find a job, buy groceries, and pay bills. When I returned home for four months in the summer, I realized I missed Canada and my independence. My parents are pretty strict. It would be 7 p.m. and they’d ask where I was. But in Canada at 7 p.m., I could do whatever I wanted! I started missing that independence. That was around the time I realized that I don’t feel as attached to my life back home anymore. Now when I go back to visit family, it doesn’t feel like I’m going home, it feels like a visit.
Starting university studies
After two years at Fanshawe, I graduated from my study program. It was 2020 and the pandemic had started. Finding a job during COVID was tough. I had always planned to go to university in Canada, but my initial plan was to get my permanent residence (PR) and then apply. Many international students go to college, graduate, and then work for a year (on a Post Graduation Work Permit) to get their PR. That lowers the cost for university tuition. But because of the circumstances due to COVID, I decided to apply to Western University right away.
With my two years at Fanshawe College, I was accepted into the second year of Western University’s economics program. I then transitioned to honours specialization in economics with minor in analytics and decision science. In two months from now, I will graduate.
Landing a dream internship
I got my first part-time job from a referral. While I was volunteering, I met someone who worked as a teller at a major bank and I asked if he could refer me. That led to my first job. I needed the Canadian experience, and it helped me create a Canadian resume to apply for internships. It took me a long time —about eight months—to learn what Canadian employers want to see on a resume.
I realized I needed to show how I contribute to work flow, how I take initiative, and that I can do many things simultaneously. At that time I was volunteering, working part-time, and studying. My marks were high, and I was taking extra courses outside of my studies, like the Canadian Securities course and Mutual Funds courses. This helped me stand out from the crowd. I applied for about 60 internships and was hired by RBC. My manager told me I was hired because I do so many things at the same time, whereas others focus on just one thing.
Advice to international students coming to Canada
If you’re a student moving to Canada, I would say don’t be shy. If you close yourself off, you will not learn about other people or opportunities that are open to you. Take initiative, even if you’re an introverted person, and get out of your comfort zone. This will help improve your language abilities and also learn about opportunities.
When I first arrived, I overlooked a lot of the resources at my college. It was only in my last year that I started learning what they provided. Professors can also refer you to jobs. If I’d known this, it would have saved me time in my job search. This is especially true where I live in London because it is a small community. My professors, for example, know business professionals from banks or other financial institutions, and they can refer students.
Pride in accomplishments
My biggest accomplishment will be in two months when I graduate from Western University. Not everyone can live abroad and study because it’s so hard, mentally, to be far from your family and friends. I’ve seen many students come to study for one year, and leave in the second year because they couldn’t stand the hardship.
There’s a quote by Mike Tyson that says, “Every person has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That’s what it can feel like—you have a plan that you’re going to build a good life in Canada, but you face many obstacles and it’s like you’re getting punched. Some people give up, while others stay and power through.
I’m proud that I stayed, even though I faced obstacles. I told myself, stay strong, because at the end of the day, you have a long-term goal that you want to accomplish. I handled every challenge and resisted the desire to leave, and I feel this resilience is a good life skill I can carry with me for the rest of my lifetime, no matter where I go.