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Creating a Holistic International Experience in Continuing Education

AdobeStock_July 9 2024

International students represent an ever-increasing portion of the student population, but the same care, services and attention that degree students get is required for continuing ed students.

Learners around the world have had opportunities to study abroad since the advent of international travel. Whether for the purpose of learning a new language, experiencing other cultures, networking with colleagues from other countries or potentially finding a new home for economic or other reasons, international education has exploded over the past several decades. Undergraduate and graduate programs are the ones best known for attracting students from different nations, but what about other learning models?  

Through International Professional Programs (IPP) that started in 2022, continuing education at the University of Calgary has been attracting educated and experienced learners from other countries. These learners register for a program that trains them to address proven labour market shortages in Canada. In this interview, Deepa Acharya discusses how IPP has been evolving over the last couple of years to enhance the experience for international learners. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Can you share a bit about the UCalgary International Programs (IPP) and how they are structured? 

Deepa Acharya (DA): We currently have four full-time program streams that each bundle together three to five complementary professional development domestic certificate programs to provide students with the skills employers seek. Areas of study include project management, business analysis, intelligence and analytics, digital media and marketing, human resources, leadership and professional management. The programs vary in length from eight months to one year. International students in these designated streams are eligible to apply for study permits for this primarily in-person delivery. Upon completion, students can apply for post-graduation work permits, which allow them to work in Calgary or elsewhere in Canada. As well, we have recently added in a work-integrated learning (WIL) term for our one-year programs. 

Evo: Your programs are all cohort-based, so what are some of the benefits and challenges you’ve experienced with this approach? 

DA: Recognizing that there are benefits to both open registration and cohort-based programs, we’ve chosen to use the cohort-based model for several reasons. First, with our IPP students taking their respective programs together, an instant cohesive community forms, which helps build a support system for learners who may find the transition to a new country isolating. Other benefits include higher retention and ultimately a higher success rate for our students, as they learn to lean on each other for course-related needs and other settlement concerns. Some of the drawbacks can include groupthink and the need to be very mindful of messaging to students; misperceptions and inaccurate interpretations can spread very quickly. We have found that students in each cohort will quickly start a group chat using tools like WhatsApp to efficiently communicate with each other.  

Evo: Some schools have a structured schedule to manage international programs such as yours. What has been your experience with class scheduling? 

DA: The goal after graduation for most IPP students is to be able to work and live in Canada, often in Calgary or surrounding areas. One well-regarded aspect of our program is the interaction with the industry professionals instructing these learners in their programs. Our instructors have significant teaching and professional experience, and they provide insights and sometimes even connections to their respective industries. Of course, one big challenge of this scheduling approach is reflected in class timing, which is somewhat variable from week to week and can pose occasional scheduling obstacles for students wishing to work part-time. 

Evo: What are some enhancements you’ve added to your International Professional Programs as they’ve evolved over the last couple of years? 

DA: Knowing how important it is for our students to find meaningful employment after finishing their program, we collaborate with the University of Calgary’s Centre for Career and Personal Development. Their services have traditionally only been accessible to students in degree programs. Within this new arrangement, we have a dedicated IPP Career Pathway Advisor who provides individual and group career support and coaching. They also help arrange special events like panel discussions on job search strategies. Another big part of the IPP Career Pathway Advisor role is curating a list of employers who may want to take on a WIL student. In addition to career support, we host a comprehensive student orientation at the beginning of each intake along with various social events that bring all the cohorts together.  

Starting with our fall 2024 intake, all incoming students will be registered in our specially designed IPP student prep course. This course has several modules including student considerations before departure and after landing, about studying in Canada and resources for living in Calgary. 

Evo: Are there areas you wish to further develop in IPP? 

DA: We have learned a great deal as the program has grown. Like anyone working in international education, we need to pay attention to government policy changes, which impact our programs directly and indirectly. Each term there are always unique situations and new developments that require us to adapt and respond like the recent impact of AI tools like ChatGPT on academic integrity. We’ve had to work on communications around classroom etiquette and on responding to circumstances relating to program absences. We’d like to have more opportunities to hold social events for our students and establish an even more robust WIL program. Our vision is that each talented individual who takes a chance on Canada and on the International Professional Programs at the University of Calgary ends up with a fulfilling career and life here and can contribute to our community economically and socially.