I have worked at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC) as a residence advisor, and now as a residence engagement coordinator, for two years. For these jobs, I organize residence-wide events and direct committees. In this time, I have witnessed how the school creates a sense of community for many. University is a platform for people to define who they are as individuals, by attending events, joining clubs and participating in many other activities. Though there are many opportunities university offers, people cannot help but be intimidated. This community can be inclusive and welcoming, but hard to break into.
“Living on residence helped (me feel a sense of community) because you’re kind of forced to interact with other people, but seeing people make friendships faster than you can really get you down,” said Aly Albanese, a second-year student studying journalism at UTSC.
One unfortunate aspect of university culture is that it can encourage people to compare themselves to others. With overwhelming pressure on students to keep a high GPA while stuffing their resumés, students can feel they have failed when they do not reach their expectations.
This can be attributed to an independent self-construal and culture. According to Social Psychology (4th Edition), a textbook outlining behavioural and motivational psychology, these are prominent attitudes in the Western world, which pushes the value of uniqueness, independence, and drive. With competition in mind, students begin to feel alone—but many can actually empathize.
“I was irrationally worried about being alone for the rest of university, not realizing others felt similarly,” Albanese said.
Universities typically have people or programs in place to buffer these feelings. Some campuses, including UTSC, offer a student mentor program, in which first-year students sign up to be matched with a mentor (typically an upper year student), who checks on their wellbeing and is there to answer questions.
Loka Shankar, a mentor at UTSC and fourth-year student studying human biology and psychology, is very familiar with the importance of community.
“It all depends on where the student is from,” Shankar said. “If a student is from a Western part of the world, to them (community) might not be such a big deal, because Western culture is a lot more independent, whereas Eastern culture is a lot more interdependent. So in that sense, it makes a big difference, but it also depends on the person.”
Shankar is from India, and knows that different cultures can create different understandings of community.
“Coming from India, I played outside with actual people,” he said. “For people who grew up watching movies and playing a lot of video games, (a feeling of community) might not be such a big deal.”
Theoretically, it makes sense that interdependent cultures—who, according to Social Psychology, generally believe social relationships are invaluable—would cherish community. But in my experience of residence, the reality seems different.
Most international students on residence at UTSC come from interdependent cultures (South Asian, Eastern European, African and Latin American parts of the world). Yet, in my personal observation, a majority of them display very selective behaviour and avoid many of the school’s events and outings. I have found that they tend to interact more with other international students. Perhaps this is because students from interdependent cultures value community more if it includes other interdependent people. Or perhaps the Canadian university is ineffective at creating a sense of community for international students and interdependent cultures.
One 2012 study found that a large majority of faculty in American schools not only expected, but rewarded behaviour associated with actions of independence over interdependence. Students who performed tasks on their own, instead of in groups, reaped more benefits. Living in Western culture could certainly mean Canadians fall into a similar trap.
One of the largest and most popular programs UTSC offers is their management program, the only international undergraduate business program at any U of T campus. Many students in this program explained that a lot of the courses within the program involve group projects. Interdependence is furthered in the mandatory lab components of biology and chemistry courses at U of T, which requires students to work in pairs. UTSC Residence also offers many programs for interdependent activities.
Shankar wondered whether universities could produce exams in multiple languages, to aid international students. While this is a fascinating idea, would it really add to interdependence? I don’t think so. Although this would help students who struggle with English, using the country’s national language should be expected when entering a Canadian university. I believe it would divide students by taking away from potential similarities people could share, while also damaging communication between people of different linguistic backgrounds.
Universities do their best to foster a sense of belonging for all of their students. I think university (at least my university) has equal opportunities for independent and interdependent cultures through a diverse range of clubs and assignments in various programs and courses. Universities can also effectively build community. I can attest to this, as a student who is heavily involved on campus and has lived on residence for three years.
A school constructs its educational goals around its students. A university in a Western society with an independent cultural bias should be anticipated. Whether that bias should exist or not is another question.
By Bobby Hristova
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.