By: Manveetha Muddaluru
At the age of five, I travelled alone on a plane for the first time. Although it was a short flight from Abu Dhabi to Hyderabad, it was an amazing experience that sparked a passion for travel and my dream to one day work at the airport where each person travelling has their own unique, personal story and reasons for the places that they’re travelling to. So when the opportunity came up to volunteer for the Airport Welcome program, I just couldn’t pass it up.
This August, McMaster University, Mohawk College, Columbia International College and the City of Hamilton have partnered to welcome international students coming to study at these institutions at the Toronto Pearson International Airport. Since this is the first year of the program, volunteering for it has been a perfect way for me to get involved within the Hamilton community as a Mac student, something which I wanted to do more of in my final year of University.
My volunteering shifts usually begin with me running into other volunteers from McMaster University and Mohawk College at the bus stop. Even though we were strangers, we recognize each other by the bright orange shirts we wear. Many of the volunteers are international students themselves, coming from countries all around the world. I instantly became friends with many of them as we shared stories of when we first moved to Canada, relating to the struggles of adjusting to living in a new country and our memories of back home. They also spoke about how they wished an Airport Welcome program like this had existed when first moved to Canada to start University. They wanted to pay it forward by volunteering to help new international students like they once were.
Every day from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. at the arrivals in both Terminal 1 and Terminal 3, we welcome international students from countries all around the world who are starting their undergraduate or master’s degrees, as well as exchange students who will be studying at McMaster and calling Hamilton their home for the next little while. For some, it’s their first time taking a flight and leaving their family, friends, and home country where they were born and raised to start a new life and adventure in Canada. For others, like the exchange students, coming to Canada is a way for them to combine their passions for travelling and their academic interests. They can experience living in another country with different cultures and customs than their own, as well as study in a new education system at a world-renowned university.
Some international students have travelled over 24 hours and are tired due to jet lag from the difference in time zones between Canada and their home countries. They’re excited to get to their accommodations and settle in, which is where us volunteers come in to provide them with information about how to reach their destinations. This help can be especially reassuring since students often arrive without a working phone and help of Google Maps. We also answer any other questions they have about moving to Canada, living in Hamilton, and studying at McMaster.
During my conversations with international students, many expressed that they are excited, but also nervous about finding a student house to stay in by September, finding a good cell phone plan, figuring out their health insurance, and where to find all the information they need before classes start. I’ve also had the chance to learn about the cities they are coming from and compare the similarities and differences between our University experiences. At the end of our conversations, students are always so appreciative to have had some friendly faces waiting to welcome them and ease their nerves. As someone who experienced moving to Canada, this was very rewarding.
When waiting for international students to arrive, I also spoke with people waiting for their loved ones to arrive who were really interested in learning more about the Airport Welcome program. Some shared their personal stories of moving to Canada and who they are welcoming at the airport. There were also a few incoming first year students waiting for their loved ones at arrivals who came up and talked to us about how excited they were to be starting their undergraduate degrees at McMaster in a few weeks. Many other individuals who are Mac alumni or had family and/or friends who are current Mac students or alumni spoke about the University in high regard.
During these moments, I felt very proud to be an ambassador and represent McMaster to the rest of the world. Having these conversations with people from all over the world, learning about their life stories, and understanding their perspectives and worldviews, whether it was the international students we were welcoming or other individuals at the airport, has been an enriching experience and definitely something that I will cherish.
I am so grateful to have gotten this chance to spend time at the airport with other wonderful volunteers welcoming fellow Mac students. This experience has truly been a dream come true! Interacting with people from all around the world and learning about their stories has allowed me to become more globally aware as a University student and make new friends, all while being involved in the McMaster and Hamilton community.
Manveetha Muddaluru blogged about her student experience for the Student Success Centre from 2018 to 2019.