From an interview with Rehan Vasi
Born in Bombay, India and raised in Dubai, Rehan Vasi came to Canada as an international student in September 2014. He attended Brock University, where he studied business communication and digital culture with a major in marketing management. As a rule, Rehan takes opportunities when they are presented, and he took this one to walk us through what international students might expect, from that initial cultural shock, finding one’s community here, to finding a job and eventually a career. He points out the importance of mental fitness and how focusing on goals can help motivate you through the challenges that come with studying in Canada and seeking permanent resident status.
Like many high school graduates from Dubai planning to study abroad, I had a choice of four main options: Canada, The United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Canada was the most attractive. Not only because it would be cheaper to study in Canada than in Dubai (where there is no distinction between national or international students in terms of fees), but because of Canada’s high quality of life and lower cost of living compared to its competitors. Canada has a universal healthcare system, and it is a free market economy, unlike Dubai, which is a federal monarchy.
Most Importantly, in Canada, you have the opportunity to stay after graduating from university or college and apply for permanent residence. Canada is a very young country at just 150 years old. It’s a developed country with many opportunities and it’s still growing.
Being prepared, dealing with culture shock and finding your way as an international student
I did my homework back home: Canada has approximately 100 publicly funded universities. I had friends who went to Brock University, in Ontario, including a colleague of my father’s, so I was familiar with the school. Brock did a phenomenal job at informing new students; in fact, they sent a recruiter to Dubai to help prepare the students who would be attending that year.
The majority of the students entering first year are just 18 years old, leaving home for the first time, and can feel sort of lost at times. Some of my friends were facing these struggles, so they connected with the international student center and just started meeting people within the school. The school is known for a really good student experience, and I had a great time over my four years.
I think the majority of challenges that students faced were from living off-campus. They could become a little isolated. There are some real pain points when studying abroad, like finding accommodation and understanding banking in Canada.
Coming from Dubai and moving to a small city like St. Catharines was a cultural shock. Things were slow. If I had moved to Toronto, I don’t think it would have been such a shock. It was just that transition phase. I had a lot to learn. Even doing small things on my own such as cooking or doing laundry – that was new.
Balancing your post graduate career goals and your permanent residence goals
After graduating, you’ll likely have two key goals: one is to develop your career path to find your ideal job, the other is to get your permanent residence (PR). And in order to get that PR, you’ll have to make some sacrifices. You may have to settle for that not ideal job because you have limited time, and you have to fulfill employment requirements for your PR.
That’s the case for me right now. My career goal has always been to work in the digital landscape and innovation: I’m a Product Designer with a background in Marketing and a passion for Product Strategy. But my focus right now is on obtaining my permanent residence.
So I work full time as a subject matter expert for Turbotax: I help customer service reps resolve technical problems and navigate the software. It’s not my ideal job. I didn’t study this at school. And this is the story for a lot of students. Their actual career journey starts once they become permanent residents. Because with your PR, you have freedom: you have time to take risks, accept setbacks and aim for the career you really want.
Goals keep me motivated, and my most important goal right now is getting my permanent residence. I’m just a couple of months away from completing my one year of professional work experience and applying for my PR. The opportunities that come after achieving that goal are highly motivating. If I wanted to start a digital design and marketing agency right now, I could do that, but I would not be eligible for the PR unless I made half a million dollars a year. But after I have a PR, if I have a good idea, I know that I can get funding, even government funding. Then I can go on my own, explore and even take greater risks.
In Canada, it pays to talk to people – even strangers
I grew up in the United Arab Emirates. It’s a very friendly place – Dubai is extremely friendly. However, in the public sphere, people are very reserved. Greeting people on the street is just not the norm. At most, you might say “hi.”
It’s very different in Canada. People are more open, and strangers offer to help out. It was another cultural shock for me. I was slightly suspicious at first, but then I realized it’s the norm, and most people genuinely want to help. I’m quite outgoing myself, so I actually enjoy meeting new people and building my network.
One day, when I was still at Brock, I was sitting at a bus stop, and a woman complimented my watch. I said, “Thanks. It’s a gift from my mum” She asked me what I did, and I told her I was a student and that I like to write blogs and have also taken related courses at university. It turns out she was a senior editor at a local magazine. So, I said, “If I can volunteer and learn from you, that would be such a great opportunity.” She gave me her business card and asked me to send her my resume.
The next thing I know, I got the opportunity to write a short column in her magazine. I’ve now written three articles for the magazine, including one on student finance! A year later, a friend of hers was running for mayor, and she reached out to me and asked if I knew anyone who could create a digital campaign for him. At that point, I wasn’t really confident in doing it, but I thought, “What have I got to lose?” Right then and there, I decided to learn digital marketing and web design.
From working as a campaign marketing manager, I got to know people in the local business community.
I now do freelance product design on the side with local businesses here in Niagara, and while my freelance gigs don’t contribute to my PR, they are part of my career development.
For me, success in Canada will be having a career that I love or running a business that I’m proud of and having my parents with me years down the line.
Five tips for international students and newcomers in general
1. Show up. Explore the community. Be creative
An online mentor of mine says, “You must always show up, no matter what.” in order to integrate and really explore what’s out there, you have to get out there. I studied business at school, and in St. Catharines, I worked hard to get to know the local business community. I have developed a strong freelance business here.
2. Build your network and build relationships
I have learned that in Canada, networking is crucial. Build and maintain professional relationships. The reason we’re talking right now is that a professional friend of mine is associated with Arrive.
Another friend recently landed a consulting job in Ottawa. For a few months, he had networked and got to know several people within a company he was interested in. Building these relationships helped him get an interview, and he got the job. Also, in the post COVID world, it’s important to maintain your online brand presence.
On a personal level, having a strong circle of friends is really important. My social circle brings me a lot of support, joy and happiness.
3. Plan for your PR early
My advice would be to know early on whether you are going to apply for permanent residence. If you decide that you are going to apply, then you really have to make a plan and stay on top of things. You only have so much time after your graduation, so you should start looking for a job before you graduate.
Understand the requirements for your PR and figure out how you are going to get that necessary work experience. The earlier you set your goal, the better. In my case, it meant prioritizing PR over my dream job, at least in the short term. Keep your eyes on your objectives, be patient and persistent, and the opportunities will come your way.
4. Take care of your mental health
In many cultures, mental health isn’t really talked about. It’s not treated the same as physical health. When you move to a new country, especially if you’re moving alone, you will get homesick. It’s a process that everybody goes through. So be ready for that.
My advice to any international students having any mental health issues, (especially as we are balancing a digital and an offline life) is to speak out. Schools provide councillors: it’s absolutely confidential, there is nothing wrong with needing help. It’s part of life. Schools in Canada provide exceptional support services in mental health. It’s actually prioritized. And it is crucial for your well-being. Being physically active helps too.
5. Understand finances in Canada
I came to Canada when I was eighteen. Banking and finances are very different. Back home, I lived with my parents, so I just got pocket money – it was all cash or I had my dad’s credit card. But here, your bank account comes with a responsibility. I didn’t know about the financial system here, so I read up on it. I have a budget of what my expenses are, how much I can spend, and how much I should save to achieve my goals. Also, your credit score is essential for everything from buying a house to starting a business. So, start your credit history, use your credit card and keep it consistent to maintain your good credit.