A team of international students have created a platform intended to empower current international students to find employment and navigate the career landscape in Canada. 

The exploitation of international students is rampant and well documented, often coming at the hands of employers, immigration consultants, and private colleges.

But students also experience challenges in trying to navigate the education system in Canada, which is often the main pathway students use to get permanent residency.

Isempower was founded by three former international students-turned-entrepreneurs, who wanted to be a part of the solution. 

Ramneet Brar, Isempower’s Chief Growth Officer, has seen many of these forms of exploitation firsthand, which lead to the desire to create change.

“As a former international student myself, I have witnessed exploitation all around me,” she said in an interview with 5XPress.

“From employers asking to work for free in return for an "experience letter," to relatives paying $50,000 for getting a work visa. The industry of benefiting from international students and immigrants is growing, sadly, and things need to change.”

The three founders realized that there was very little support for international students, and many instances where their vulnerabilities were being preyed upon.

“There's no support for students once they graduate. You need to find a job that gets you [Permanent Residency], but immigration consultants are not going to help you do that. Neither is your college.”

Oftentimes, the diploma programs that many international students enroll in do not give them enough of a foundation to become employable, according to Brar.  

According to international education expert and Director of Gradwins.com, Loveraj Grewal, says that there is quite a gap in knowledge that students have, that starts when they are leaving their home country.

“Students are not very well informed,” said Grewal in an interview with 5XPress, who also runs workshops with international students for Centennial College. 

He added that when universities send representatives to do orientation with students before they even arrive in Canada, the information provided is not sufficient to ensure the student’s success.

“The information that a student needs is not included,” he added.

“Half of the induction is all about like, a travel and tourism kind of thing. We discuss things about Canada [having] so many provinces, or about the lakes that Nova Scotia has.” 

The emphasis then becomes selling Canada and the university to the student, and not necessarily giving them the tools for success. 

Grewal explained that top universities may have employment centers and resources for students, but this isn’t the case for smaller institutions.

“We need to understand that a major chunk of international students do not go to these top universities, they actually go to public colleges.”

The focus is more so on getting students into the system, rather than teaching them what they need to know to get better paying jobs in the area of their study, according to him. 

“The college's focus should be on giving the students the right knowledge about the program and how this program can help you land jobs,” he said.

“[But] the major focus [is], ‘hey, if you come to this institution, take this two year or three year program, you will get a post-graduate work permit.’ That's the big highlight.”

Despite international students paying up to three times the tuition of domestic students, this means that many are entering this pipeline and finishing their studies without getting the tools needed to be employable.

“If it's a smaller college, you'll be surprised there are colleges with 95% just international students. These colleges are being made to just get a student for four semesters and get them a postgraduate work permit.”

Brar says this doesn’t necessarily prepare students for entering the workforce as qualified workers, which pushes them into lower-paying jobs or into situations where exploitation is possible.

“Students take to restaurants or trucking companies, like these smaller niches of their own community, because they think that they are the people who will give them that job letter,” she said.

Grewal added that the added pressure from parents can further complicate things.

“It's also the pressure that their parents put on them that especially in places like Gujarat, and Punjab, where they say, ‘I sold our land,  to basically send you abroad, and now you need to send us money.’”

“So there’s a lot of things happening in the international education industry, there's not just one and it's like a huge mess.”

Platforms like Isempower are meant to serve as a professional ecosystem for international students by bringing employers, universities, and a community of mentors to help them build meaningful careers in Canada.

“Students have to realize the importance of freelancing and internships and volunteering to build that skill set.”

Isempower started with career bootcamps by getting hiring managers and recruiters to build up courses for students based on different areas of expertise, along with mentorship programs, to help them build transferable skills related to the career they want.

“We did three rounds of mentorship programs, which were like a four month-long mentorship program, connecting students to industry professionals who were also international students,” she said.

“[They have] that familiarity of the journey, and the challenges are similar, and the language barriers, and the confidence barrier that students have, they can resonate with them. It sometimes also gives you the inspiration that, ‘okay, someone else did it, so I can do it, too.’”

The platform also has a Slack community with immigration experts, mentors, students, and we have different channels for posting jobs, referrals, resume reviews, immigration advice, to help build community. 

Brar and the other founders want to bridge the knowledge gap and give students the tools they need so they don’t need to rely on middlemen who may exploit them.

“I think what happens with students is they're waiting for someone to tell them where they fit in, or waiting for someone to tell them what to do. And they think that's the only way to go about it. ‘If someone did this, and he got a job, that means I'll do the same.’”

“But there's no blueprint to success.”

She hopes that the platform can counter some of the fear mongering that takes place when it comes to immigration, and help international students achieve success on their own terms.

“They need to really learn who they are, what skill set they bring in and have that confidence and stop thinking that you know, stop living in this fear that someone will just snatch away this dream from them,” she said.

“It's in your favor, the government wants you here, that's why the immigration system is relaxed enough, because they need people and you've paid the price to be here.”

Grewal added that while the government does want students to immigrate here, they should be doing more to educate incoming students on the resources available to them, and to invest more in ensuring that students have infrastructure in place to be successful.

“The government should come forward and take the responsibility of connecting with students, not by just launching one webinar a quarter, but maybe if possible, have different centers or work with local companies and local organizations that are doing the same thing,” he said. 

“The stakeholders job is to basically support the international students, and to make sure they get the right things according to their needs. The government should start this initiative of launching certain programs, or support companies like us, so we can reach out to the masses.”

About the author

Rumneek Johal

Rumneek is a journalist, host and speaker. She is currently the BC Reporter at Press Progress where she focuses on systemic inequality, workers and communities, as well as racism and far-right extremism. Her previous work centers on asking tough questions within her community, starting conversation and chipping away at the status quo. Other focus areas for her work include the South Asian community, arts and culture, pop culture, and more. She is a proud Punjabi woman from Surrey, BC.

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