UBC’s new Vantage College helps international students find their voice
Growing up in Yemen, Ziad Merdas learned quickly how to adjust to new circumstances. The Arab nation has seen its fair share of turmoil but nothing deterred him from completing high school.
“Yemenis learn to adapt with many life barriers such as regular blackouts that can last up to 18 hours a day, inadequacy of security, interruption of oil, and rising of goods and transportation prices,” says Merdas, who grew up in the capital of Sanaa. “We all managed to live through that.”
Having already gone through so much to graduate, Merdas wanted to stretch himself, expand his horizons and go on to study abroad. He is one of 200 students who will be part of the inaugural class at Vantage College, a new academic unit on UBC’s Vancouver campus that helps outstanding international high school graduates sharpen their English-language skills while pursuing first-year classes.
The program’s design sets students up for success by spreading the school year over 11 months instead of eight, giving them more time to absorb the material and progress to a higher level of English proficiency. Classes are smaller, instructors use innovative techniques that fully integrate English into course materials, and students get individual tutoring and support from a faculty mentor.
If Merdas, who earned a scholarship to Vantage College, and his classmates do well, by September 2015 they could be moving into the second year of their chosen degree program at UBC.
If not for Vantage College, promising international students like Ethan Zhu, are easy to overlook because their English is not quite up to regular admissions standards.
“For me, whose mother language is Chinese, I don’t think my English is excellent but I think I still have good studying abilities, a passion for learning, and nice academic performance in high school,” says Zhu, who plans on studying science.
A global perspective
Canadian universities value international students for the diversity of experiences and views they bring to campus life, giving Canadian classmates a taste of true global citizenship. While many have read about the political instability in Yemen, Merdas has lived it and can help others understand..
But international students are also attracted to UBC for the diversity on campus and the chance to meet people from all over the world.
“My perspective of the world is going to change and I will also open my mind to new things,” says Maria Elena Barahona, a Vantage College scholarship recipient from Honduras. “Apart from learning inside the classroom, I will have the opportunity to learn from different backgrounds and cultures.”
Solid support instead of culture shock
An aspiring nutritionist, Barahona knew she had to pursue her degree abroad since no university in Honduras offers a nutrition program. But she also feared the move to Vancouver could be challenging.
“The cultural shock and the transition from high school to college can be very difficult. Vantage College grabbed my attention with the guidance and preparation they offer,” she says. “I feel more confident knowing that I’m entering an international program with people from all over the world.”
Vantage students arrive on campus in August for a two-week orientation program for all new international students–exploring campus, attending lectures and tutorials getting intensive English instruction and meeting with their mentors. Vantage students also get to participate in a research project with their faculty mentor and present their findings at an end-of-year conference.
“We want students to see what they can do with their degree when they are connected,” says Joanne Fox, the academic director of Vantage College and an instructor in the science program. “We’re helping them find their voice and learn how they can contribute to their discipline.”
The professors also hope to learn a thing or two from Vantage students.
“We’re rethinking how students transition to first year and hopefully we’ll be able to import what we learn from Vantage into the first-year experience for all students,” says Fox.
Video: Joanne Fox on UBC Vantage College
UBC begins welcoming first-year students to its Vancouver campus next week when 1,500 international and Aboriginal students, including Vantage College students, arrive to participate in Jump Start, a first-year orientation and transition program.
Jump Start helps to ease the transition to UBC with a two-week program filled with social activities and workshops. Students are introduced to life in Canada and learn skills for succeeding in school. It also connects students with professors and peers so they can start to set up a network at UBC. Regular meetings and activities continue throughout first year so students from different backgrounds can stay connected and get the support they need.