by Ethan Paquet
Recently, a celebration marked the graduation of international students across the Island. The ceremony featured three recent graduates sharing their stories of establishing themselves on PEI. Also on hand were numerous community resources and service providers who can assist graduates as they plan for their future.
The event was organized by a post-secondary (PSI) working group that includes representatives from UPEI, Holland College, Collège de l’Île, Office of Immigration, IRSA, ASDA, and SkillsPEI, which meets monthly to discuss and share how they serve international students, events, resources, and more. Organizers included Cecia Huang, Abby Goodwin, and Teresa Tu.
Jeff Young, Director, Office of Immigration, opened the ceremony by acknowledging the sacrifices international students make as they begin their journey. “It takes strength and courage to decide to leave your home and your family, and to go to school in another country.”
He explained the options currently available to immigrants, employers, and communities, including the International Graduate Program, which helps post-secondary graduates from PEI institutions obtain permanent residency and stay on PEI.
“To access this program, you must have a permanent position with an Island employer. That is currently defined as a two-year contract,” he says. “However, we understand it can be challenging to find the right job out of school, so we want to work with you to support your long-term success on PEI and provide you with flexibility in accessing our programs.”
He encourages all international students and graduates from PEI institutions to reach out to the Office with any questions about how they can stay and work on PEI. “We will work with you on a case-by-case basis. I also encourage you to make connections with the service providers and resources available to you as you continue to build your own personal networks.”
Three recent immigrant graduates tell their stories
Rita Olfi did not choose UPEI, but rather, it chose her, she says. “I was studying in Morocco in 2017 when I was asked to come to PEI as an exchange student for a six-month term.”
At UPEI, she earned her Bachelors degree in Business Administration. When she returned home, she was excited to launch her career. But while trying to become part of the labour force, she found pre-existing barriers that she could not accept, she says. “Women in Morocco make 30 percent less than men, and almost 80 percent of women are housewives. As much as I love my home country and culture, there was no room for me to grow. I needed to come back to PEI to start my career.”
Her first attempt at returning to the Island was to apply to take her Masters degree. When she was told she was not eligible, she did not give up. She applied for a second Bachelors degree, which was accepted. “After returning to school on PEI, I was offered an opportunity that I didn’t even think was possible. While I was a student, I was also hired as a teacher, providing French language training for the federal government at L’Université Sainte-Anne.”
Her experience in teaching projected her career exponentially and inspired her to use her degree to help others, she says. “I had the opportunity to meet new people and form lasting relationships with individuals from all walks of life. PEI provided a nurturing environment for me, which allowed me to find a second home and discover my purpose. That deeply influenced my career aspirations and dreams.
“I came to realize that success is not just personal achievements, but also using our skills and knowledge to create positive change in each other’s lives.”
After graduating in 2022 with a new career goal and purpose in mind, Rita began working as a Job Placement and Outreach Coordinator with the Atlantic Student Development Alliance (ASDA), which provides international students and graduates with soft skills and industry-based training, resources, and networks to help them enter and become active participants in the labour market.
“There is a great value in making connections and in building bridges across cultures. I am determined to continue fostering global understanding and promoting cultural exchanges. I dream of establishing initiatives that bring people from different backgrounds together.”
Her advice to international students today is to never lose sight of their end goal. “I want to remind anyone who is in the same position that I was that sometimes, taking a step back is the only way to find your way forward.”
Keyshawn Bonamy was enrolled in a university in Nassau, Bahamas when he decided to try studying abroad. When he saw the UPEI brochure, it just made sense for him to apply, he says. “It had a beautiful campus, a picturesque location, and it was on an island. I thought to myself, ‘You’re from an island, so you can move to another island.’”
Accepted into the Economics program, he travelled the farthest distance he had gone in his life, arriving on PEI in time for the January 2016 semester. “At UPEI, I quickly found my stride. While researching different universities, one thing I looked at the most was size. PEI was small, so I wasn’t in a position where I was one of tens of thousands of students and seen as a number or a statistic. There was both room to breathe and room to grow as a person.”
As the days turned into weeks, he found himself struggling with homesickness. “I missed my family, my friends, and the food back home. But I knew PEI was a place where I could grow. I was torn between two different places.”
He found comfort in working within the new community he had found himself in, he says. “I signed up for the Student Union, helped with the Academic Appeals Committee, and became involved with the International Student Society, which allowed me to connect with people just like me. I joined the Rotary Club of Charlottetown, where I volunteered with soup kitchens and clothing drives, and met people from all walks of life. This helped me find joy and passion in community service.”
He also dared himself to try new things that he may not have had the opportunity to do back home. “I attended conferences, concerts, and events, and I began meeting people from different backgrounds, faiths, and communities, who I am lucky to call my friends and family. They have changed me and made my life better. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but PEI did that for me.”
In 2020, he graduated from his program and began considering what his next steps would be. “The experiences I had over those four years helped me make the decision. Without me even realizing it, PEI had become my home. I had found friends, love, and laughter, and I built my life here. I had to stay.”
UPEI’s International Relations Office provided guidance on how to apply for a post-graduate work permit, and Keyshawn found employment with the Voluntary Resource Council, which works to strengthen communication and cooperation among the voluntary sector on PEI, and provides services and information to its members.
“The position wasn’t related to my degree in economics, but it did cater to the interest I had developed in community service. It gave me the opportunity to work across PEI and Canada to help address a multitude of issues, such as food insecurity, environment, income equality and housing. It also allowed me to apply for permanent residency. Two years later, I am still in this position.”
Keyshawn says that when he finds himself questioning if he made the right choice, he is secure in his answer. “Do I miss my home in Nassau? Of course, I do. But home can mean many different things. PEI has become my home, and if I had the choice to do it again, I would do so without any hesitation.”
Shadae Beale-Sommerville began researching Holland College after learning about their two-year programs from a family friend. Realizing it was a perfect fit for her needs, she applied to their Accounting Technology program in 2017. When she was accepted, she and her husband, Levi, prepared to move to Canada. “Unfortunately, my husband was not able to come after all, so I arrived in PEI all by myself. So, from the beginning, it was an exciting but lonely journey.”
She missed her home and her family but found comfort in the little things PEI had to offer. “I came to love things like the seafood chowders, potatoes, walking the boardwalks, meeting the tourists, seeing the landscapes, and the laid-back pace. I also loved that everything was a stone’s throw away.”
As the school year began, she quickly bonded with her peers, the program staff, and other administrators, which helped bring her out of her shell and find a support system, she says. “It became one of the best experiences of my life. I learned the skills related to accounting, but I also learned skills that would help me to find success in the workplace. Academically and socially, I felt prepared for any challenges I might face after graduation.”
In her second year, she applied to the Study & Stay PEI program, which supports international students in their final year of study by providing them with essential skills, resources, and support to help them find work and remain on the Island after graduation. “The program prepared me for my transition from student to employee. It allowed me the opportunity to take part in networking, plan strategically for what I wanted to accomplish, and create backup plans.
“Through attending seminars and events, I learned how to secure permanent residency, which I did in July 2021. After completing my on-the-job training at an accounting firm, I found full-time employment with that same firm after graduation.”
After graduating, Shadae’s husband finally joined her on PEI, and they will be applying for citizenship later this year. Last year, the couple bought their first house, and she gave birth to their first daughter, Renée. Her mother-in-law and sisters have also moved to the Island and will apply for permanent citizenship later this year. Her sisters will attend Holland College in the fall.
“If someone were to tell me that I would be in the position I am right here, right now, I would look at them confused. Nothing in my trajectory would have led me here, but I am in a place I now call home, and I am so grateful that I’m not on my own.”
Shadae encourages other international students hoping to settle on PEI to take advantage of the numerous community resources and service providers available to help. “Don’t wait until you are in your final year or until you graduate to look for help. Prepare, plan, and pivot when needed. You have already made it so far, and great things lie in your future.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
about the Office of Immigration and its programs, visit www.princeedwardisland.ca/en/topic/office-immigration or call 902-620-3628
To find a list of community resources and service providers on PEI, visit www.employmentjourney.com/jobs/pei-resources-and-services-for-job-seekers-employers/