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Why Canadian universities matter? [Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review]

Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review, Monday, January 11, 2010

By Evren Tok
Carleton University, Ph.D. Candidate: School of Public Policy and Administration

While perhaps we all agree upon the meaning and importance of a university degree today, when it comes to choosing the “right” institution, defining “right” remains a complex task. As university education becomes an ever more vibrant (and lucrative) industry we often find ourselves relying on a number of trendy university rankings when making our educational decisions.

While the rankings conducted by respected institutions most often speak for themselves – in that they tend to employ solid methodologies, unbiased scientific techniques and well-organized cross-national samples – these rankings remain silent on a number of issues central to choosing the “right” institution. Let me shed some light on this silence by examining some of the nuances and benefits of Canadian universities.

Although overshadowed by their British and American counterparts in rankings (www.webometrics.info), Canada’s universities are a bargain. Simon Beck, editor of the Canadian Universities Report 2010, says they are a good deal “not only compared with their counterparts … but also when one calculates what those four years will mean to graduates for the rest of their life.”

Beck’s argument is an illuminative one. University education in a foreign country is a “lived” experience embedded in a social setting that is not necessarily bound or contained by the classroom or campus. The lived experience of studying abroad is enmeshed in the city that hosts the university, in the socio-cultural practices of the nation and in the opportunity space outside the campus.

Canadian universities offer an important alternative in that they are situated in a country constitutionally based on the principles of multiculturalism. Diversity is undoubtedly the linchpin of multiculturalism.

In Canada, the perpetual contemplation of diversity becomes a source of strength and a factor in enrichment and social integration, which paves the way for co-existence, instead of the xenophobia or social exclusion experienced by foreign students in certain other locales.

Universities across Canada, by hosting thousands of students from diverse backgrounds, in turn, become key arenas for cultural encounters guided by multicultural values and the recognition of diversity.

It is not surprising then that Canadian study permits and student visa applications begin with the phrase “education in Canada is not a right, but a privilege.” Framing education as a privilege promotes a shared sense of belonging.

It is a feeling reinforced by the existence and operations of well-functioning institutions, which treat you as part of the Canadian community, regardless of your heritage or your status in Canada as an international student. Tolerance, equality of opportunity and respect prevail despite your ethnic background, national affiliation, gender, sexual orientation or race – beginning from the moment you arrive at any Canadian airport where passport control officers do not discriminate between Canadians and non-Canadians, but lead all individuals through the same processes – quite rare in a post-Sept. 11-world!

The question, “Why do Canadian universities matter?” has endless answers. Studying in Canada makes you a part of Canada’s role in promoting global development both financially as well as through its many passionate non-governmental organizations, think tanks and other civil society organizations.

Canadian universities engage in ongoing collaborative work with these institutions, implementing projects in a wide range of countries. Both the United Way’s annual fundraising campaign and the national “Make Poverty History” campaign offer compelling examples of this university-civil society cooperation.

Similarly, Dignitas Youth is a student-led civil initiative with fifteen member universities whose on-campus youth chapters aim to strengthen the international response to HIV/AIDS-related global health concerns by empowering youth to become influential global leaders of the future.

After being inspired by the resolve of Scott Simpson, an HIV+ triathlete, Dignitas Youth members in Canada commenced the “Race for Dignity” to raise awareness about inequities in access to essential HIV/AIDS medications. Scott was determined to cycle across Africa in the Tour d’Afrique, and by doing so to draw attention to the lack of access to HIV medications in Africa.

When he realized that his body would not let him make his dream come true, Dignitas Youth members committed themselves to finishing the race. For every year since, Dignitas Youth campus chapters have held the Race for Dignity – a spinathon on stationary bikes. A considerable amount of money has been collected in this way for Dignitas International’s work in Malawi and other least developed countries, providing thousands of people with access to life-saving medicines.

As Merve Bilgiç (3rd Year BA – Economics and Political Science with combined honors), vice president of the Dignitas Youth Chapter at Carleton University, said, “The Race for Dignity campaign goes beyond raising funds, it is a way for students to realize that they can change the world … an opportunity to become acquainted with community-based approaches that help students realize change is possible and that they are capable of being part of that change.”

Bilgiç goes on to say, “Canadian universities provide a stage for socially responsible students to engage in the supportive loop between universities, government institutions, community centers, NGOs and international public opinion.”

Thus, along with a multicultural campus, international students in Canada, whether through volunteering, internship, co-op or part-time work, have the opportunity to become part of Canada’s leading role in global development. In addition, Canada, as a country of “immigrants,” offers post-graduate international students work permits that enable them to legally work anywhere in Canada.

As a country with two official languages, depending on the location of your campus, learning French in addition to pursuing your education in English can be a stimulating experience. Universities located in Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, namely Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, offer ideal settings for becoming better acquainted with Canada’s bilingualism.

The close proximity of these two universities and their institutional complementarities make it possible for students to take courses from both schools. Likewise, if you are a student at the University of Toronto, you can increase your spectrum of course and learning alternatives by registering for courses at York or Ryerson University.

An interdisciplinary focus, analytical reasoning, and critical thinking are three key common characteristics of the Canadian education system. Accordingly, Canadian universities provide different options to students who strive to engage in multidisciplinary study.

In addition to completing a major, you can start a minor and/or a concentration in an altogether different or complementary discipline. A combined degree offers yet another alternative provided that you have reasonable academic standing.

In closing, I believe very strongly that Canadian universities matter! Whether in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa or Montreal, coming to Canada for the “Canadian experience” offers so much more than a university degree!

Dignitas InternationalWhy Canadian universities matter? [Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review]