International students have a lot on their plate

Dealing with work on top of full-time school and adjusting to a new country is not easy

I would describe the part-time jobs I had before I became a reporter-editor at The Dialog as a sequence of disasters. The jobs were terrible and I was bad enough at them to erode my confidence.

Some disasters were spectacular, like dropping a glass of wine on a wedding guest while I was working part-time at a tennis club banquet hall.

Others were ongoing disasters, like when was working at a take-out restaurant franchise close to Dundas and Yonge. The specials changed every week and I needed to complete online courses about the company regularly. 

I just worked there on weekends, and I never quite got the hang of all the demands of the position. Customers would arrive and I didn’t know the new prices and often couldn’t even find the food items they ordered in the system. 

Besides dealing with customers’ impatience, I still needed to help with finishing the delivery orders in the kitchen. And what a kitchen; the chef yelled at their assistants all the time, and when I made a mistake the kitchen staff would rudely take the orders back without explaining what I did wrong. 

The environment was really stressful and the hours passed slowly. 

After a month, I couldn’t do it anymore. When I told my supervisor I was quitting, it felt like I was freed from hell.

International students often need to work part-time, but adjusting to a new country both at work and at school can make things very difficult. I know this struggle personally, and also spoke to other students who are part-time workers with similar life experiences.

Flavio Mattos, an international George Brown College business administration student, knows how hard it is try to balance his academic and work life. 

Mattos is taking nine classes this semester, while working 20 hours a week at a coffee shop. His shift starts at 5 a.m. so he has to wake up at 3 a.m. Mattos has his eyes on a co-op placement and is trying to keep a GPA over three in order to get it.  

Besides taking an extra class in his full-time program, Mattos said that he also needs to spend a lot of time preparing himself to manage the customer service expectations of the company. 

“Definitely, work requires you to know a lot of stuff, especially Starbucks, because we have so many processes, directions to make drinks, (and) ways to serve costumers,” said Mattos. 

“Some weeks I’m really tired and exhausted. Some other weeks, I’m fine,” he said. 

Some of the main challenges in Mattos’s part-time job are to make it through business hours with a smile all the time, and recognizing all the products and options available there.

“I feel like, sometimes, I make mistakes more often than my co-workers that are full-time and not going to school,” Mattos said. 

He said that it’s impossible to be productive in his academic and professional life all the time, and that there isn’t much time for a personal life. 

“When I spend too much time working, my performance at school kind of decreases, but that also affects my work performance,” he said.

Another 30-year-old student from Latin America, who asked that her name not be used because she’s working over the 20 hours permitted by immigration, said she is struggling with balancing with her personal time, school and two part-time jobs. 

Besides studying business marketing at GBC, she works as a nanny taking care of five kids, and as a freelancer developing marketing emails for an advertising agency. 

“My time is very tight because usually I finish school and I have one hour to go to work and sometimes, for my freelance job, I have to do some very quick thing they send me and, if I’m at work, I have to do right way,” she said. “I have to open my computer and do something quickly and usually the kids are playing around, running, and they try, you know, to play with my computer.”

She also confess that she can’t have a routine for anything and even her eating is irregular.

She knows that according to immigration law, as a part-time student she is only allowed to work only 20 hours a week, but she says that she’s doing what she needs to do to finish college.

“I know I shouldn’t be doing that (but) I have no choice,” she said. “If I did not have to pay and be responsible for myself here, I wouldn’t do it.” 

According to Syed Hussan, coordinator of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, stories like these these not uncommon.

“There’s a lot of people in cash jobs or not being paid decent hours. They work overtime; they work on holidays,” said Hussan. 

He highlighted that even though students pay expensive fees to have a Canadian post-secondary education, a lot of students don’t get the Post-Graduate Work Permit (PGWP), a program where eligible international students can temporarily stay when they finished school. 

Hussan said that international students are in a kind of precarious status and should be seen as temporary workers rather than students.

“The vast majority of people who come on study permits are actually working,” he said. “They are working temporary jobs, because they are mostly allowed to work 20 hours a week off campus if they are studying full time. Many of them are working more and for cash and that means that people are engaged in undocumented work.”

A Citizenship and Immigration Canada report shows that the average earnings of international students with a work permit through the PGWP was $19,291 in 2010 while a domestic college graduate was earning $41,600 in 2013.

To meet the requirements of the PGWP, I recently left The Dialog for another job. I thought it was a marketing position that would be full-time when I graduated, but it wasn’t and I’m still looking.

After 10 plus years working in the marketing industry in Brazil, I was always confident in my abilities. But, as an international student working part-time in restaurants, banquet halls and doing sales, for the first time I doubted my ability. I felt like I wasn’t good at anything.

I’m hopeful though, and confident that I’ll find something in my field. It took time to understand that it’s impossible to request a fish to fly or a butterfly to swim. They are phenomenal doing what they have the talent to do.


International students have a lot on their plate