Monika Sidhu: Alpha College Fiasco Exposes Harsh Realities & A Broken System For International Students
“We can see accommodation is a problem, mental health is a problem, finding a job is a problem, wage theft is a problem, why all of these things are happening? Because the system was not ready..."
May 25, 2022 | 10 min. read | Original Reporting
When 21-year-old international student Ramanpreet Kaur had not received her school schedule three days after the semester started at the Alpha College of Business and Technology, she had a feeling something was wrong.
Not wanting to make early judgements, she thought it must have been a mistake, “I thought it was just me,” she told Baaz.
She remained calm at first but her suspicions grew as the college would not answer her calls.
“I called them 20 times and they answered my call on the 21st time,” she said, however she still did not receive any insight on what was happening. Eventually when one of her friends mentioned they also had not received their schedule, the two of them went to the college.
Upon arriving to the building, Ramanpreet definitely knew something had gone wrong, and it was clear that it was more widespread than she assumed.
“I saw 200 plus students standing there,” she said.
Nearly 400 students had their enrolment deferred by Alpha College, even after paying their tuition and assumingly cementing their seats. Instead of starting classes or getting their letters of enrolment, students were either not sent their schedules at all or they were removed from classes they were already enrolled in.
“We are not studying neither are we working. Enrolment is important to us because it gives us status in Canada,” said Ramanpreet.
Students have gatherered outside of Alpha College since May 18 and have been demanding answers. For many, having their studies deferred not only makes their status in Canada uncertain but it adds great mental and financial stress to their already difficult circumstances away from home.
“It was really bad. I was mentally destroyed,” said Ramanpreet. “Before a few days ago everything was okay. We were just happily completing our semester and suddenly what the college did, it was really bad.”
She mentions that these pressures are what have her fellow students thinking deeper about their mental health, and she often hears others bring up death by suicide as an option in desperate situations.
“Some students say that they are not able to sleep so they try to take pills to get good sleep and still they're suffering.”
Ramanpreet has only been in Canada since September of 2021 and despite the barriers, she still has grand goals and will not give up.
“My father is farmer and my mother is housewife. So I have great interest in business. I want to send something for my parents so that they don't have to pay, and they don't have to work in the future.”
According to students still protesting, many of them have been sent their schedules. However, those continuing to demonstrate are doing so out of a deep distrust of the institution, as well as a lack of assurance for the students abroad who have paid their fees and not received their letter of enrollment.
The students are not alone.
Many community groups have come together to help these international students by offering support and supplies, including the World Sikh Organization (WSO), International Student Association, Team We Care, the Naujawan Support Network and the Ontario Dump Truck Association.
Sharanajeet Kaur is the Senior Vice president of the WSO. She’s worked with international students in varying capacities during her tme at the WSO but mainly through her work on the Sikh Family Helpline, a non-emergency helpline that is aimed at the helping Sikhs in Canada.
“How these young people are being treated is disheartening and the fact that it's being done by post secondary education and institution of trust is definitely something that is difficult,” she tells Baaz.
“It really is about supporting them, empowering them to have a powerful voice to advocate for themselves in this situation. Whatever we can do to help is what we're here to do. And that's often providing moral support and providing some legal and strategic guidance. It's leveraging our contacts and our networks to ensure that we can draw attention to the issue but also ensure that this issue doesn't get lost; that it gains momentum and that the college and the government is forced to do right by these students.”
Sharanjeet goes in deeper on the larger systemic issues at play and how that impacts students on a long term basis.
“This institution is supposed to provide them with education and also set them up for success. So when this institution is one that they feel is not engaging with them from a from a place of trust and treating them as they deserve to be treated, it really makes it difficult for them to engage with all other organizations across in the government and Canada.”
When asked what students have been asking for during this protest, Sharanjeet reflects on the larger demand of those protesting infront of Alpha College and beyond.
“They want the assurance to say it's not just that this situation is rectified right now. But how can they actually trust the institution to know that once the public pressure has come down a little bit that they won't go back to their practices and their behaviors that they've encountered in the past”
She notes that the message from the college regularly changes.
Alpha College originally told students that this was the fault of the government and then at another time they have blamed it on their affiliate, St.Lawrence College.
Sharanjeet explains how frustrating the entire ordeal has been, especially since it has been long understood that private colleges have been known to not have the best practices when it comes to international students.
“So we have definitely heard of ongoing concerns with students who are attached to private colleges, both in terms of quality of education perspective, but also in terms of the supports that are offered to students. So for example, when there are concerns both from an academic perspective but also from a social services or health perspective, these colleges don't necessarily have the infrastructure, the policies, and the processes to support international students. So, we have heard of ongoing concerns of private colleges. These public/private partnerships are definitely something that are emerging, growing over the last little bit.”
The inconsistency in messaging from Alpha College, and other private colleges like it, has only led to greater concerns around the sincerity in which these institutions operate with, Sharanjeet explains.
“How is it that they didn't have capacity to hold this many seats, and now due to the public pressure, they suddenly said that they have capacity. Where did the seats come from? Where's the faculty coming from? What are the class sizes going to be now? What is the assurance for the quality of education that's going to be provided to these young people?”
Considering the high tuition levels international students pay, as well as the role they play in sustaining colleges across the country, Sharanjeet echoes sentiments heard from many on the ground - what are we as a community learning from the poor treatment of students?
Demonstrators are beginning to ask what exactly is the government learning from these experiences, particularly with private career colleges? Up until now, they argue it has been mostly community organizations and public institutions that have been drawing attention to issues in the space.
Community organizers flag that for many of these young students, often only 18 or 19 years old, this is the first time they have been away from home. They live in Canada with very little family support and slim social networks, which are often made up of other students in similar situations. It is imperative that the government, legitimate public institutions, and established local community members play a greater role in ensuring that students have a supportive and meaningful support network folks at the protest share.
Sharanjeet recalled a story, that many others at the protest also shared with Baaz, about how students are looking out for one another, including those still in Punjab waiting to attend the college.
Early in the protests some Alpha College officials came out to the group and asked them for their student numbers and names in order to rectify the situation. The students instead replied by asking about their colleagues in India who had yet to receive the appropriate documentation, they were also demanding a resolution for their colleagues who needed to work and could not attend the protest.
Jaspreet Singh works with the International Students Association, and is also a board member for the WSO, has been supporting those at the protest.
“Students are under huge pressure,” he said.
Jaspreet originally came to Canada as an international student and now the 24-year-old fights to ensure other students are getting the proper care and treatment they deserve.
While timetables have been issued, he knows many students are still in limbo, or have had their status expire and he hopes that the situation can be rectified.
“I know in many other colleges sometimes if they don't have any classes to offer, they give an official letter from college called a letter of support,” he said.
“So they will mention that from this month to this month, unfortunately, we don't have any classes so we are giving you official college break for four months, so that the student can present the same letter to CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency) or CIC (Canadian Immigation and Citizenship) to apply for the work permit. Because they're gonna ask for your timing, what you did in these four months.”
Jaspreet goes on, “Alpha College is not replying at all. They're not picking up their call. So I mean, no one is accountable here. For a student, trust me, it's a matter of life and death. That's all it is.”
Jaspreet continues to push for better conditions for international students. He has dedicated much of his time after his student career in doing so. He knows that there are way too many faults in the system at hand that is bringing students over.
“We can see accommodation is a problem, mental health is a problem, finding a job is a problem, wage theft is a problem, why all of these things are happening? Because the system was not ready for this number of students.”
Jaspreet and some of his colleagues are doing what they can at the protest and beyond. They have started a petition to hopefully adjust the number of legal working hours for students from 20 hours to 30 hours.
Dilpreet Kaur is also a student of Alpha college and while her enrolment had not been deferred, she attended the protests to show support to her fellow international students.
The 19-year-old computer systems technician student has only been in Canada since October 2021 but she has been determined to standby her colleagues in this time.
She was braving extreme thunderstorm weather when she spoke to Baaz.
“We will stay here, we will be here, no matter if it's thunderstorm, if the temperature is even in the minus, we will be here. If it's too hot, we will be here. Like back in India, back in my country, our parents protested during the farmers’ protest.”
Dilpreet remains confused for her colleagues, she along with many others do not understand why seats would be promised when the college clearly does not have the capacity to hold them. But she is also hoping to stand up for the students that are still abroad, awaiting their enrollment letters, waiting to come and start their education in Canada.
“The friends who are in India, not just India, there are other people too who are in other countries, who are getting deferment, who are not in Canada, we want to talk about them. We want to fight for them too beause that's not fair.”
Ramanpreet also remains hopeful but uncertain. She does not know if she can trust the institution going forth.
“If this doesn't work, what will I do? What will other students do?”
For now she wrestles with the thought of the life she was expecting in Canada and what the actuality of the situation is.
“Every student has a fantasy that they will live a good life in Canada; study peacefully without any stress.” said Ramanpreet.
“I had lots of expectations that my studies will go easily and I will be able to settle in this country but reality has hit us hard. We have to sit outside of campus and we are feeling low mentally and physically as well.”
Monika Sidhu is a journalist based out of Brampton. She covers topics of arts, culture, and social justice. More recently, she graduated with a Master of Media in Journalism and Communication from Western University. You can find her on Twitter at @MonikaSidhuu.
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