Jennifer Yuen is a recipient of the annual Staff International Experience Fund (SIEF). The award allows staff members to travel and engage in collaborative work with international partners and institutions.

With more than 61 per cent of students identifying as a visible minority at Waterloo, Jennifer, a counsellor with Counselling and Psychological Services, often meets with students from diverse cultural backgrounds. As a counsellor, Jennifer also works with students living in residence.

In 2016, she visited three universities in Turkey and Indonesia. One of Jennifer’s career goals includes working to create a better understanding of gender, family, and cultural issues specific to Muslim and Arabic students.

What was the purpose of your trip?

I knew we had a lot of international students coming to the University of Waterloo, yet the focus on our services was diverse first generation Canadian citizens. I thought it was important for our department to gain more competence culturally to respectfully support students. Travelling abroad helped me gain new knowledge of clinical skills and tools related to mental health specific to the Muslim population. I also had the opportunity to visit residences on campus to look at their student experience programming, including additional support and wellness initiatives within residences.

Which universities did you visit?

I travelled to Insitut Teknologi Bandung in Indonesia and Bilkent University and Yeditepe University in Turkey.

What was different about the universities you visited when it came to helping students with counselling and mental health?

The first thing that comes to mind is that it’s still a newer concept in Turkey and Indonesia. There’s talk about mental health among students, but rarely do they speak to a counsellor about it. The campuses I visited are working hard to change that by making counselling more accessible to students.

At Waterloo, we talk about a lot of stressors. Stress is the number one thing that affects students, followed by mood disorders such as depression, and anxiety. In Turkey and Indonesia, the top stressors for them are family dynamics. This plays a huge role in mental health. That also helped me understand the importance of asking questions that are more family oriented in our standard assessments. It’s important to be more mindful in asking these questions and understanding where they come from.

In Indonesia, the school I visited didn’t have a counselling centre. Only the psychology students are able to get counselling at the hospital, but it’s not offered to the rest of campus because there’s such a high demand. If an international student believes they can only receive counselling at a hospital, when they come to Canada, they may be more hesitant in seeking counselling because they think it means they have to go to the hospital.

What surprised you the most during your experience?

I was reminded that this was a one-of-a-kind experience for them as well. The universities I visited abroad often have researchers visit to learn about a particular topic. When I said I was coming from counselling services, which was part of my proposal, they all had to scramble to prepare. No one has ever stepped out of the box to look at what we’re doing here. They said, “We should do that as well – so we were learning from each other. They’re there for the students, and to be able to see that and be so open to learn from one another was lovely. They were so giving and wanted to learn about what we’re doing in Canada so they could improve their services.”

How was your experience personally rewarding?

I love travelling. You reflect on your workplace versus the workplace of a different country. We often forget how much we have at Waterloo. I didn’t feel like a foreigner or intruder. They were so welcoming and it reminded me of our students. We can give them the best computers and the best labs, but we also need to treat students with the respect and services they deserve. Academically I know we can do well, but I want to ensure that international students will be global citizens instead of just, “I’m here for a short period of time and I’m going back.”

Life is hard. Being away from family and support is hard, so when I’m counselling international students, it’s not easy. When I was away it wasn’t easy at all. I’m an adult, I’m high functioning, and there’s culture shock. I felt it, and these students feel it all the time when they’re here, especially when academics are so stressful. We say it’s stressful, but feeling it is completely different.

What was the greatest lesson you learned from this experience?

You have somewhat of a plan, but it’s never really going to go that way. I had all these things I wanted to know for my project, and not all of my questions were answered – but there were things I never asked that were right in front of me. Maybe it’s because I was looking through my Canadian lens and constructing ideas and questions that aren’t formulated abroad.

How has your experience changed the way you work and your perspective of Waterloo?

I think about questions I would ask differently and am starting to talk to department heads about changes I’d like to see and implement, but it’s a process. Having those conversations is a really good start. I emailed the president and wanted to let him know how great the experience was. He answered me right away and we met each other the following week. We had a great talk about the program and how it would continue. I think it’s really great for an employer to do that. It helps you feel grounded and want to continue to work for a great place.

View all staff spotlights

Learn more about international opportunities for staff