International student well-being begins with staying warm in winter

Two PhD candidates in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry launch projects to welcome new international grad students to the faculty

Keri Sweetman - 18 November 2022

Ask any international student their first impression of arriving to study at the University of Alberta and you’ll almost always get the same answer: “It's a bitterly cold winter!”

Kim Cuong Nguyen and Fernanda Talarico, both graduate students in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, vividly remember their early days in Edmonton.

“We arrived here at the end of April and the next day, it snowed — a lot!” recalls Talarico, a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychiatry. “We were like, ‘What are we doing here?’” Talarico and her husband came to Edmonton from Brazil three and a half years ago.

“I came in late August and I felt cold all the time,” says Nguyen, a PhD candidate in the Department of Radiology and Diagnostic Imaging who arrived from Vietnam 11 years ago. “I went outside and people were wearing T-shirts and shorts, and I was in a jacket.” A few months later, when she went shopping for her first winter coat, she had no idea what to purchase, so she bought something cheap. It was a poor choice.

Now that Nguyen and Talarico are veterans of Edmonton’s winters and of their graduate studies, they have launched two projects aimed at helping incoming international students in the faculty cope with some of the challenges they remember facing – including the weather.

The two grad students met in late 2021 in the faculty’s Office of Advocacy & Wellbeing (OAW) while working on some OAW projects. They decided to take the lead on developing additional programs to help create a supportive environment for international graduate students in the faculty (who number almost 200 in thesis-based programs). 

Their first idea was a project they’ve dubbed the Gift of Warmth, providing good-quality, second-hand winter coats to the faculty’s international grad students who need them. It began late last winter.

Nguyen says their original idea was to approach international students who were finishing their studies at U of A and either moving back to their home countries or to other Canadian cities. Most of these students, they reasoned, wouldn’t be taking their bulky winter coats with them and would likely end up donating them to Goodwill. Instead, they asked these students to donate their coats to the Gift of Warmth project before they left Edmonton. They also asked for donations from faculty, staff and friends in the community.

So far, they’ve collected 58 coats, which have been cleaned and categorized with the help of OAW staff. Jordan Wong, a fellow student, has spread the word through social media and online posters. Now that winter has arrived, some students have already dropped by OAW to pick up a coat, and donations are still coming in.

Talarico says they have also created a helpful guide called Canada 101, which provides information for incoming international students on the campus food bank, affordable grocery stores, transit, where to live near campus, what to wear in winter, low-budget stores, how to apply for health insurance and more.

“There’s so many different things involved in moving to a new country that we as international students have no idea that we have to do,” says Talarico. Some things can be done in advance, before students leave their home countries — such as arranging bank appointments, booking apartment viewings and applying for scholarships and financial aid. 

The Canada 101 guide, which is available as an online pamphlet, also offers resources for those struggling with mental health problems. Talarico experienced anxiety and depression when she arrived but has since found help.

It’s not unusual for international students studying in Canada to struggle with stress, loneliness and mental-health issues. An August 2022 survey by ICEF Monitor found more than one-third of international students responding to this year’s International Student Barometer survey reported feeling stressed.

The OAW office supports the health and well-being of all students in the faculty, with Lisa Purdy tasked with overseeing programs for graduate students. Purdy, assistant dean of graduate student affairs in OAW, encourages any grad student in need of support to contact her office, and she’s grateful for Nguyen and Talarico’s efforts to help the faculty’s international students.

“The energy and enthusiasm that Kim and Fernanda have given to their community is amazing,” says Purdy. “They both want to foster a supportive community for our graduate students. I am so grateful to be the background support for their projects. All of the initiatives they have created are things they are passionate about or areas they identified as gaps in support based on their own experiences.”

Find more information about Canada 101 or donate to the Gift of Warmth project.