“Living at UBC is like travelling the world and working in every field imaginable because you meet people from all over with a wide range of interests.”
Intercultural understanding is an essential part of living with others in a diverse university environment.
But what does it mean?
“Intercultural understanding begins with a willingness to learn about and respect different cultures, nationalities, traditions and beliefs,” says Alden Habacon, UBC Director of Intercultural Understanding Strategy Development. “It also means openly sharing ideas that help build inclusive communities on campus and in residence.”
As a student, living in residence comes with a responsibility to encourage and support activities and living spaces where all people can thrive socially and academically, no matter where they’re from or what they believe in.
It’s important at UBC because residence is home to students from more than 137 different countries. 79 per cent of UBC students speak more than one language; 50 per cent speak English as their first language.
Habacon adds, “Your roommate might be from a small town and you’re from a big city. Your Residence Advisor could speak many different languages and practice a different religion. Even a staff member you see every day in the dining hall could be from another part of the world you’ve never even heard of.”
Uttara Kumar, 19, and Payal Shah, 20, know first-hand what it’s like to live in residence among people with diverse backgrounds and customs they’re not used to.
Both from India, they met in the Jump Start orientation program for international students, lived in Place Vanier during their first year of studies and are now roommates in Marine Drive. They offered to share their experiences and advice for living and learning on a vibrant, multicultural campus.
Before you arrived, how did you expect people from different cultures would interact in residence?
P: When I was doing my research, I read about the diversity at UBC and was a little scared. I wondered, “What if I offend someone or say something I shouldn’t?” I also worried that people wouldn’t understand my background and that it would be hard for other people to relate to me.
How did it feel when you moved in?
P: It was such a positive experience. Everyone I met was understanding and interested in getting to know me. People were very respectful of other’s feelings.
U: I agree. A lot of people we met are international students too. We all have different experiences and perspectives but can relate to each other. We did the Jump Start program before moving into residence, which helped us get used to our surroundings and all the different people.
What challenges did you face with so many diverse people living in the same place?
P: At first, I was concerned about approaching people. I wasn’t sure if it was okay to walk up to someone and say hi. Building relationships works differently here than it does back home.
U: I was mostly concerned about trying to maintain friendships. Just because you meet someone, doesn’t mean you’ll see them again because there are so many people here with different interests. Group friendships didn’t happen quickly, but they did happen.
How does UBC create a sense of inclusion among residents?
P: It’s all about participating in different activities. In my first year, I was a floor representative at Place Vanier and helped organize many events. I think the whole purpose is to bring people together from different backgrounds to get to know one another and learn about unique traditions and customs.
You’re both from India. Does that mean you’re the same, culturally?
P: No! We have strong differences because we’re from different parts of India. Our family customs are different and we speak different languages. Living together, we realized there’s so much diversity even within our own country.
Have you learned anything new about other cultures while living in residence?
U: We have another roommate from France. It’s fun when she teaches us new words. She even made us crepes, which we had never tried before, and they were so good! It was also interesting to learn that people from France don’t speak the same as French Canadians. We didn’t really know that.
Do you think there could be cultural barriers among roommates?
P: Sometimes, but very rarely. I think there could be challenges mostly related to language, food choices and sense of humour. But we all recognize that people do things differently around the world. As long as you’re willing to learn, everyone can get along.
What’s your best piece of advice when it comes to unique cultural perspectives in residence?
P: Living in residence might be difficult for people who are set in their ways and not willing to expand their horizons. It’s always best to be open-minded and accept people’s differences.