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Resources for Expatriate Canadians returning to Canada after living in the U.S. or further abroad

University and College in Canada

Some thoughts on University and College preparation, application, and admission for Canadian expatriate parents and their teenagers.

Important News:

"Should you to go university or college in Canada right now?"

Canadian universities and colleges are entering brand new territory. Not only are they getting caught having put a huge reliance on international students for their financial stability (who did not come in 2020 and in greatly reduced numbers in 2021) but they also have to adapt to a new online teaching modality and a new definition of what a higher education institution is about.

Some considerations if you have a son or daughter who is planning on going to university or college in Canada in 2022:

Why this page?

university in Canada

I have had many inquiries along the same general theme:

How will our children get into university or college in Canada when they are living and have been educated outside of Canada?

No one wants their children to be "outside" the Canadian education system without a clear and understandable path back into it, particularly at the higher education levels.

This page is for parents, in particular, who are concerned that living outside Canada during the crucial university preparation years of high school could put their children at a disadvantage in terms of being able to access higher education in Canada.

From my long experience working in the higher education system I can offer you assurance that Canadian teenagers who are educated and living abroad can study at Canadian universities and colleges without disadvantages. In fact, their life experiences gained living outside Canada can give them significant advantages!!

A Scenario:

Joan and Richard left Canada for Indonesia when their two teenage daughters were in grade 6 and 8. Now, with their oldest daughter entering grade 12 at an international high school in Jakarta, Joan is concerned about university and college options in Canada. Though Joan has some fears that her daughter won't be allowed to apply due to being foreign-educated, Joan dismisses these and is pretty sure that their family's situation is not that alien to Canadian university admissions departments. She trusts that there must simply be a different process to work through for her daughter's application to Canadian universities than traditionally educated Canadian teenagers, and that everything will be OK.

Joan is absolutely correct!

There is nothing to be afraid of and indeed there are simply different processes to work through for Canadian teenagers who do not live in Canada or study within the Canadian education system in Canada.

Sometimes those processes require a closer scrutiny of transcripts to ensure that special university program requirements are met (high school math courses required for engineering programs, for example).

Sometimes a portfolio or phone interview is required to get a richer sense of the student's abilities.

Sometimes, if English is not clearly indicated as your child's first language, an English proficiency test is required.

Besides these possible smaller hurdles, your Canadian teenager who lives and is educated overseas does not face discrimination, disregard, or rejection.

Tanya shares her thoughts on raising children abroad while still planning for them going to Canadian university when the time comes:

We are Canadians currently living and working in Al Ain, UAE ... and have been here for 10 years now. Our two children (Years 6 and 8) are studying in a British school system and although there is some time yet, they are eager to go back to Canada for university. We have started researching just to give ourselves an idea of what we need to prepare them for in the future. I agree that sometimes the value of living abroad gets overlooked by parents who worry about integration back into our own societies, but I can see that our children have become open-minded, kind, interesting, multi-lingual, travel- savvy global citizens due to their international experience!

As a family, we continue to embrace our overseas experience and are grateful for all the local and international friends that we have met along the way, not to mention the opportunities to travel to so many amazing and different countries on holidays!

...It is often easier to see what we lose rather than all the things we gain from our overseas experience, especially when there are children involved. I often remind our expat friends that what we give our children is valuable and we should not feel guilty about our decisions.
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Some Frequently Asked Questions:

1. "How does my son/daughter apply to a university or college when we are living in another country?""

Answer: The easiest way is to focus on 2 or 3 universities or colleges that have a program of specific interest, or are in a province they want to be in. Then, make contact with these institutions' admissions staff, letting them know your situation and asking for information on the application process given your context. As university and college application and admission takes some time, starting this research process a full 12-18 months ahead of the desired start date of studies is advised. You are dealing with long lead times to research, prepare an application, submit it, have the university consider it, and then admit a student. Applying only 3-6 months ahead will likely lead to disappointment. Even within Canada the application process takes 6 months or more prior to the start of studies.

2. "Will our Canadian teenager pay international student fees (very high), or Canadian fees (much lower)?"

Answer: If your children are Canadian citizens, they pay local, Canadian fees, regardless if they were educated and lived abroad prior to entry into a Canadian university.

"But, I heard from someone who said my teenager will pay international student fees!!"

No. Your teenager will not pay international student fees if they are a Canadian citizen. Canadian citizens pay Canadian students fees for higher education in Canada.

One wrinkle: If your teenager is less than legal age of adulthood (age of majority) at the time of entry into higher education, there is no Canadian address for them when they will be in Canada, and they will be arriving and studying alone, some universities and colleges may require that the institution be the legal guardian of your teenager until they reach legal age of adulthood. In this case, there can be higher fees. In most of Canada the legal age of adulthood is 18. In BC it is 19.

How to avoid this situation Almost all Canadians have a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or other close relative of your teenager who lives in Canada. You simply make this person's home the formal residential address of your child. Easy. Then the application and official Canadian address for your teenager is local and you have far fewer questions or concerns in this regard.

3. "If we leave Canada when our teenager only has 2 years left of high school, will this put their high grades in the known Canadian system at risk and therefore their chances of being accepted at the best schools and in the best programs?"

Answer: No. Top grades are top grades and getting into great Canadian university and college programs from abroad is very doable.

4. "How does our son/daughter access scholarships?""

Our Canadian citizen son, currently studying at American School of Lima Peru, seems to find himself 'falling between the cracks'; he isn't eligible for any scholarships available to students from Canadian high schools... nor is he eligible for scholarships for international students as he is a Canadian citizen and as such won't be paying international fees (thank goodness!)

Answer: Living overseas does have an impact on the ability to apply for scholarships that are awarded by Canadian schools, cities, governments, and many private donors. These types of scholarships are designed to reward local students who do well academically and to keep them moving along in the education system without interruption rather than have them do something else after high school, like an apprenticeship, gap year, travel, starting a business, etc.

Scholarships are not really focused on you, the expat family.

I have had several questions about scholarships and have heard that this does cause distress for some parents, exacerbating the feelings that their son or daughter is disadvantaged as a result of being outside the Canadian school system.

With respect for those feelings, I gently suggest that this is a time to focus on the proverbial cup being half full, not half empty. You can use your son or daughter's interests and special experiences abroad to access scholarships that "regular" Canadian students wouldn't even think to access. But it takes exploring interests with your son or daughter and casting a Google search more widely than trying to "work" the traditional Canadian university system entry and scholarship awarding process.

  • If your son or daughter has a special skill or ability they gained living abroad, you can look for scholarships specific to that skill or ability.
  • There are scholarships available to people who have an interest in a specific region of the world or country. Your son or daughter could provide a scholarship application that the granting committee would be delighted to read.
  • Many companies sponsor scholarships for specific industries. My son was able to access scholarships for electronics study from electronics firms, for example. These scholarships have nothing to do with your son or daughter doing their high school in Canada or not.
  • Sports scholarships: I have a good friend who is a professional American baseball league scout and university entry consultant who I can recommend to support you if your son or daughter is considering any kind of sports scholarship / sports entry route into higher education in Canada or the U.S. Please contact me for more information.

5. "Can our teenager take a gap year or longer to travel with us/alone or do something else after high school but before entering higher education in Canada?""

Answer: Yes! There are no administrative or admittance barriers that will result from a break. I can say with firm assurance that in almost all cases where a teenager takes a break after higher school and works, travels, or does something that is of interest to them (ie. training for a sport full-time, volunteering, starting a business, etc.) they will do far better in higher education in Canada than one who goes right on from high school. A break is very motivating, helps a young adult know more about what they want to study, and gives them personal motivation and ownership over their education that very few entrants directly from high school exhibit.

As noted above, scholarships and high schools in Canada play into the parental fear that teenagers will simply do drugs, get pregnant, or rot in the basement playing video games without the structure of school to force them to conform to societal norms and "grow up". There is a whole system of encouragement set up in Canada to help parents keep their teenagers moving on to higher education immediately after high school, including scholarships, social pressure, and generous fear mongering from counselors, teachers, and the media.

If a local Canadian parent was to read this they might take offence at the paragraph above. Unfortunately for many Canadian parents their children have spent almost all their lives in highly process-structured institutions, from day care to grade 12. Is it any surprise that some teenagers run into serious problems taking ownership of their own personal needs, health, schedules, and life responsibilities suddenly at the end of high school? No surprise at all, really, if you think about it!

But is your teenager a normal Canadian high school student? Have they lived a low-contrast and sedentary lifestyle filled primarily with computer gaming, social media, and Netflix? Sure you likely have these available where you live, but has your teenager been able to access "contrast" in their life and have they seen more than a typical Canadian high school student, simply by the fact that you have been living outside of Canada? If you have been in the U.S., then the answer is likely "no". But if you have been in the UAE, Brazil, Singapore, or another country your teenager is likely very, very different from a typical Canadian high school student from a "worldliness" perspective and the odds of them "falling in the cracks" of society because they do not stay tightly chained to the education conveyor belt is really low!

I can say that every former expat student I taught brought something special to my classroom, to their education, and they almost always treated education as an opportunity to learn and grow rather than just another stop on the conveyor belt of school and life.

6. "Are there adjustment challenges when my son/daughter starts university in Canada?"

Answer: This is not actually an FAQ. It should be an FAQ by parents. It was an addition to this document after I have been witness to several challenges with expat teenagers finding it hard to adjust to life and studies at a Canadian university when they have lived abroad with their families for many years, and when their family still lives abroad.

Despite what I just wrote above about how expat children engage in higher education, which is usually very, very positive in comparison to local Canadian students, in terms of life adjustment there can be a big transition that requires significant support.

Parents: Please take this issue seriously. Some 18-year-olds can hop over to Canada, enter a Canadian university, and be just fine. Others cannot. Which is your son or daughter? If your child has had a very structured, guided, and generally "managed" life up to their flight to Canada to enter college or university here they may have a very significant challenge learning to manage their own lives and adjust to the self-directed nature of university.

Please be sure to understand what your son or daughter needs at this exact point in their development as a young adult and how well-prepared they are to take on living their own lives and managing studies at a Canadian university.

Our concerns as parents

I want to be very careful to note that I understand how deeply felt a concern it can be for parents who wish only the very best for their teenagers. As a father of two grown sons myself, I too, felt concern in their teen years that after 17 or 18 years of putting my heart and soul into raising them I didn't want there to be any roadblocks to their entry into the final chapter of their education - the chapter of higher education.

Most of the questions from clients moving back to Canada have been considerations of the process of choosing, applying, and setting up life in Canada for the purpose of starting university or college. Sometimes these concerns overshadow crucial parts of the exploration of higher education choices available. Again, from my perspective as a professor I suggest being careful to not worry about the logistics. Getting into a Canadian university or college is very doable for teenage children of Canadian expatriates.

Here are a few areas to be careful with:

  • Being so focused on the process of getting your teenager into a Canadian university or college that their interests, wishes, strengths, and natural talents are overshadowed. Maybe a "gap year" is better for them first? Or an alternative route, such as studying culinary arts in Switzerland or spending a year learning Japanese in Japan? These are just examples, but stepping back from what you want for your teenager will help you gain some perspective on what is in their best interest at this point in their life.
  • Feeling vulnerable about your teenager not being part of the regular Canadian system and manifesting this as worry and stress. You being worried can affect the joyful transition time of your teenager into their adult life as a university student in Canada. Trust that they will be OK if you prepare them ahead of time and support them through the transition!
  • Making decisions on their high school education overseas and their extracurricular activities specifically for the purpose of positioning them well for university. I have personally seen this in Dubai, with one young man manifesting significant psychological problems due to the stress his mother placed on him with constant extracurricular activities, and very little "down time". As their professor I have had to occasionally refer these types of students to counseling (and in one case immediate suicide intervention) due to overwork and their inability to manage their own life in Canada.

    Please: If you have taken a strongly interventionist approach to your teenager's daily life, take steps back from doing so now, before they leave, empowering and guiding them to learn more about themselves, what their interests are, how to balance and take care of themselves, and how to make decisions and choices on their own. One mother had to stay in Canada to support her extremely angry university entrant son who was not prepared to take care of himself emotionally and logistically. He dropped out of university as a result and had a struggle ahead of him to both learn the life skills he could have gained at a younger age and to reconcile his anger at his parents for not having prepared him for life on his own. I have had direct feedback from two other parents who had to fly back to Canada to support their teenagers when they "melted down" due to not being able take care of themselves.

In summary: If you step back from the very understandable fears that drive all of us as parents you will see that a trusting, research-based approach to entry into university or college education will result in a logical, doable process. A process that allows you to stay focused on the highest good for your teenager throughout the transition to their adult lives and to university studies in Canada if that is the right thing for them at this point in time.

One final thought...

While I was living overseas, some of my UK counterparts would go to extremes to ensure their children would enter a "good" UK high school boarding school or university to maintain a very strong cultural connection to the UK. And my American counterparts would create a fully detailed and planned American high school experience at an American School abroad, so that their teenager would look exactly like American teenagers living in America. The fear and worry the parents went through to ensure no perceptual, behavioral, or academic disadvantage to their teenagers or deviation from cultural norms back home removed from their thinking what was both possible and potentially best for their children.

Living overseas can be about being different and this can be a good thing! It can be about contrast that allows your children to grow up with their eyes and minds open to new ways of thinking. These are not just niceties or extras on top of "good" grades that allow entry into a top Canadian university. Thinking differently can be a crucial advantage! Your children can be different and be very, very acceptable socially and professionally. Being different does not mean they will live a life of vagrancy and bohemian differences that will forever leave them at the cold, dark edges of society. It does not mean bad things will happen to them.

These are just fears.

Being different can mean that your teenager can go to a foreign university, gaining significant professional advantage by doing so.

Being different can mean your teenager can return to Canada and be very successful in today's multicultural university and college campuses in Canada.

Being different can mean your teenager will find joy, excitement, and fulfillment in the amazing marvels this world has to offer...which is one of the reasons you brought them overseas in the first place, isn't it?

Your ideas, considerations, and experiences?

Your idea? Your thoughts? Your experiences?

Please share your ideas, considerations, and experiences relating to education abroad and entering higher education in Canada. I will post them here as help for others. Along with a credit to you will be a big thank you on behalf of the many people you will be helping!

Thank you!

Paul Kurucz

Latest update to this resource: December 2021

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