Studying as an International Versus Domestic Student

Studying as an International Versus Domestic Student

Photo Credit: Ali Akberali, Photographer

Four interviews about what it’s like living and studying in Toronto

Tannaaz Zaraineh, Features Editor

U of T is known for having thousands of international student attendees, adding much more culture, diversity, ways of thinking, and variance to the already multicultural city of Toronto. As a domestic student, I was always curious about how international students navigate a new city, get acquainted with a new lifestyle, and deal with the unique complications that come with being from abroad.

I decided to interview four U of T students, three international and one domestic, in order to compare. These interviews are meant to unify the student body as well as answer some of the aforementioned deliberations. No two students are the same, and each person experiences student life differently, but what type of similarities can we find through the interviews? What type of personalities do we create from only a few questions and how does one answer contrast another? What can we learn from each other, and how can we apply people’s experiences to our own?  

I decided to begin by interviewing my international friends. Devi, from London, England, was my first encounter. She’s doing a double major in Philosophy and Sexual Diversity Studies. After that, I interviewed Davina, who hails from Suzhou, China. She is studying Economics and Art History. My third interviewee was Dallas, an American from Indiana. He’s majoring in Computational Cognition and minoring in Computer Science and Political Science.

Thérèse was interviewed last, and she is a commuter from Brampton who is doing a double major in Political Science and Human Geography with a focus on planning and a minor in Practical French. 

Cost of living: 

The general consensus is that Toronto is an expensive city to live in. For Devi, her current biggest pet peeve is inflation, and she generally finds her favourite items to be more expensive, such as blocks of cheese and McDonald’s nuggets. She’s observed that HST should be added to the price instead of having people do extra calculations. To her, tipping culture in Canada is “ridiculous because servers are already earning a minimum wage” and that it’s an extra cost to student life. 

Davina says that compared to Suzhou, Toronto is about two times more expensive. “Years ago,” she explains, “the price difference was even larger, but with economic development, the difference is getting smaller.” 

Meanwhile, Dallas says that tuition is cheaper than in the United States. He agrees that living in a big city can get pricey and says that the rent shocks him. Like Davina, he’s paying double, saying, “I’m spending 1.5 times more than I would back home.” 

Culture shock: 

Culture shock varies due to people’s personal experiences. Devi and Davina had an easier time because they’d visited Toronto numerous times before starting university. For Devi, her main concern was the schooling system. “At U of T, you can structure your program, but in the UK they basically choose your courses for you.” 

Davina says she can easily tell the difference between her hometown versus Toronto, noticing that people are much friendlier, and classmates exude more confidence in interactions. “There is less pressure and more freedom, people here are enjoying their lives,” she states.

Dallas moved from a peaceful suburban area and his version of culture shock had to do with the kinds of people he meets in the city. He believes the city allows little privacy as “the second you step outside, you see people.” He adds that it was easy to offer smiles and greetings back home, but in Toronto he’s experienced receiving strange looks. “I would say people are less friendly here, and so I’ve stopped trying to be friendly to strangers,” he tells me.  

Misconceptions and things you dislike:

The three have learned new things about going to school in Toronto and as a result formed new understandings, which have also shaped into dislikes. 

Devi and Davina have noticed the growing homeless problem in the city. Devi tries to lighten the mood with stories of encounters, but an uneasy feeling lingers. She says that London’s homeless are better off and provoke passersby less often. Davina also recalls feeling unsafe and in danger at certain points, especially at night.

Academically, Davina thinks a common misconception is that international students are here because they’re geniuses or extremely rich. In fact, most are middle class. She says they’re there because families “want their children to have a better education and not deny them of that.” Some are smart because their high schools taught advanced concepts with a lot of pressure for success, and some just happen to be rich because their parents own big companies. But these are exceptions, not the rules. 

Dallas also dwells on academic questions, talking about how university isn’t as difficult as he once believed before attending. He notices competitiveness in certain classes and programs, something he considers “toxic” because of a lack of student support, but he also thinks being around such studious people is a great motivator. “You never want to be the smartest in the room,” he states. To him, there is nothing wrong with wanting to improve and learning from others. Generally though, like the majority of Toronto residents, he has grown to severely dislike the city’s horrible winters. 

Favourite spots in Toronto and what you like about the city: 

Devi is fond of La Diperie. Specifically, she recommends ordering their lime soft serve and topping it with chocolate and Nerds. As someone who enjoys whipping up new dishes in the kitchen, she highly enjoys shopping from the fresh pasta counter at Eataly. As for nightlife, Devi loves to go to Duke’s Sports Bar for a game of ping pong, but, according to her, she’s not the best and says she can “get aggressive” adding, “if I hit too hard the ball can go anywhere.”

Davina’s answer was more homely, saying she loves the view from her apartment and soaking in the sunsets through the window reminds her of an old romantic painting of a mythical Hellenic scene. She’s also become quite the foodie, telling me she’s started trying cuisines she’d previously never thought of before she became a student here.

Dallas says he likes walking around Koreatown and Little Italy, and is still taking his time to discover new places around the city. He loves how multicultural Toronto is and how it’s like a melting pot. 

Favourite spots back home: 

Just like Toronto, every place has its own unique culture.

Devi loves London’s Korean fried chicken restaurants and recommends Bab n Suul. She also likes art installations and says the Tate is offering half price admission for those under 25. She says she enjoyed visiting Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, which will be exhibited until June 2023. Davina recommends the private gardens in Suzhou which were built in ancient times. And Dallas says that Indiana is a very green state, and recommends visitors to go to the Brown County State Park. “It’s my dad’s favourite place in the world, and that man’s been everywhere,” he says.

Would you rather live here or back home? 

Devi would rather live back home. “London is massive,” she says, “and it takes two hours to go from one end to the other.” Compared to London, most of Toronto’s downtown is small and modest condensed around the yellow subway line. 

Davina and Dallas believe Toronto is full of opportunity. For Davina, she believes Toronto allows her to use her talents to create a career for herself in the future, and Dallas supports this opinion by saying that “there’s something for everyone.” He doesn’t oppose Indiana and appreciates it more since being here, but in comparison, he says Toronto is “a global city.”

A fun fact about you!

Devi shared that the musical group Between Friends follows her on Instagram and reposted her story when she went to their concert recently. She recommends listening to their songs “Affection” and “Shiny”.

Although Davina studies economics, she’s passionate about psychology. She talks to many people to learn about their backgrounds, their paths, personalities, and experiences, always curious to learn what has shaped them into who they are today. “Everyone is like a book to me,” she says, “reading their stories helps me grow and understand society better.” 

Dallas says he traveled from his hometown to Toronto on his motorcycle this year and knows how to fake a sneeze (he did it for me, and it sounds pretty realistic).

In comparison to these answers, I spoke with Thérèse, a commuter student from Brampton, and asked about her experiences in Toronto.

What’s it like being a commuter?

Thérèse says it can be frustrating at times, especially since it’s longer than the average student’s commute, but it can be enjoyable. She states, “Since I take the GO train, I get to study in the quiet zone during my commutes, which I like quite a bit. I’m also able to come home to my loved ones and my cat each night.”

Cost of living: 

“A big chunk of my expenses are transit related – so paying for my GO transit + TTC fares,” Thérèse explains, “and even with my student discount, I end up paying $22 each day to go back and forth from school.” As a commuter, she also finds herself spending on food since it’s often easier than having to pack something on most days. 

Unlike international students, she’s able to save on rent, and of course, she automatically pays less as a domestic student. Though she continues this by saying how it’s generally expensive to be a student no matter what. “While I am saving money, there are many inconveniences that I have to face more frequently since I’m not spending more money to live closer to campus.”

Did staying in the GTA help with making friends and keeping in contact with them?

It’s commonly assumed that international students face more difficulties in cultivating friendships, but Thérèse believes it doesn’t matter whether you’re domestic or international. She felt more out of place during her first and second years, but thanks to extracurriculars, her third and fourth years have given her a community to be a part of. 

Common misconception about being a commuter?

She believes the commute being dreadful and having extra funds are commonly misunderstood.“The commute can be nice sometimes, and yes we save money, but we end up spending it elsewhere like for transit and food.”

What do you like and dislike about Toronto?

Thérèse says the pros include Toronto being a “beautiful city” that offers “lots of things to do and check out compared to the suburbs.”  Like Dallas, something that surprised Thérèse was the diversity, specifically of the student body. She also notes, “There are so many cutthroat people, but many warm and kind people exist as well.”

As for cons? “The housing market is absolutely insane. It’s so hard to find a place to rent that is decently priced.” She adds that unhoused individuals are also poorly treated and it “hurts to see that.”

Do you think it’s easier to adjust to city life when you live in the GTA?

Like Devi and Davina, Thérèse didn’t find much trouble in attending school downtown. She’s been visiting the core since childhood and thinks others who live in areas that directly border Toronto feel similarly. “However, it’s probably different for students who live a bit further from Toronto, like those in Burlington or Aurora for example.” 

Favourite places in Toronto?

“On campus, I love the brown food truck! I also love Juicy Dumpling, and Insomnia for brunch. In the West end, I love Coffee Tree near Jane station for coffee and yummy butter tarts.”

A fun fact about you!

“I have a massive reusable water bottle collection but I only use 2 of the bottles frequently,” Thérèse shares. 

As we can see, each student has their own stories to share, and they each interpret the city differently. To me, these interviews almost act like a written social experiment of sorts, to further humanize a large student body, and to also exemplify the diversity that Toronto is known for. 

A special thank you goes out to the interviewees. If you come across them, say hi. They are definitely wonderful people and I’m happy to have met them.