Partners who accompany international students tend to be well-educated, yet many experience difficulties pursuing their own career goals once in Canada. Shutterstock

Five survival strategies for spouses and partners of international students

It’s a new year and everyone with a project is busy again. But what about when you have your own hopes and goals, yet find yourself in an unfamiliar country supporting a spouse or partner who is an international student?

Over the past two decades, Canada has experienced massive growth in the numbers of international students enrolled in universities, from 84,000 students in 1995 to nearly half a million students in 2018.

Some of these international students, especially those in graduate school, have spouses or partners who accompany them to Canada, even though the partner is not pursuing education themselves. A majority, though certainly not all of these accompanying partners, are women who follow male spouses to their destination countries.

There may be many reasons for someone to become an accompanying partner, including wanting to have children or maintain an intact family unit, wanting to experience life in another country and wanting to support the international student in his or her educational pursuits. Indeed, at least one study has suggested that the presence of an accompanying partner is associated with greater academic success in male international students.

Career issues when you’re the partner

Accompanying partners tend to be well educated, with many having completed university degrees in their home countries and having years of prior employment experience. Yet one problem many accompanying partners encounter after moving to Canada is difficulty pursuing their own career goals.

Some may not have explored legal requirements for working in Canada prior to their move, and many who find work end up in low-skilled, low-pay, gender-stereotyped work such as child-care, domestic service or retail sales.

At least one study has suggested that the presence of an accompanying partner is associated with greater academic success in male international students. thought catalog/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

For some accompanying partners, traditional gender roles, including the desire to support the member of the household who is in school and the assumption of primary responsibility for child-rearing, may limit opportunities to pursue work outside the home. Accompanying partners may also lack knowledge about support services, a situation which is exacerbated by the exclusion of spouses from many university-based services. Nonetheless, many accompanying partners want to pursue their own careers while living abroad, even if they don’t know how to accomplish this.

If this situation describes what you are living, here are some tips of what to do about your predicament.

1. Apply for an open work permit

It is important to know that in Canada spouses and common-law partners of international students can apply for an open work permit, as long as the international student is in school full-time and has a valid study permit.

Open work permits are not tied to any specific job, and provide a way for accompanying partners to become legally eligible to work in Canada. If you have not already applied for this work permit and you want to pursue your career goals in Canada, this is the first step you should take.

2. Improve language skills

In research I am now conducting with colleagues from the University of Calgary, accompanying partners with limited ability to speak and write in English identify their language skills as a barrier to entering the local workforce, while participants who are proficient in English report that their skills are an important contributor to employment success in Canada.

In an ideal world, you would have taken steps to develop your English (or French if you are living in a French-speaking part of the country) language skills prior to moving, but in our research, many accompanying partners were not able to do that for different reasons.

Now that you are here, it will be useful to take as many opportunities as possible to learn and practice communicating with others in the new language. Also, as an accompanying partner, it can be tempting and comfortable to interact mostly with other people from your home country in your home language. However, overcoming that temptation and spending time with a wider local community will be important for increasing your communication comfort.

3. Grow your local networks

Building local experience and work-related networks is another important part of successfully pursuing career goals in Canada. Although there are positive and negative aspects of networking, the reality is that many Canadians find work through their networks of personal contacts. Even if your priority is not your career, developing a network of people that you can connect with locally can provide an important source of personal and family support and friendship.

4. Act short term, plan long-term

Despite the existence of programs such as the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, participants in our research are finding that many employers in Canada preferred to hire individuals with Canadian experience and references. Although this may not apply to accompanying partners seeking employment in large, multinational companies, it is likely to be the case for anyone looking for work in small organizations and local businesses.

A natural follow-up question is this: “How do I build Canadian work experience and networks without prior Canadian work experience and networks?” Although it might feel like a step backwards, obtaining entry-level work, even in a field that is unrelated to long-term career goals is one way to resolve this question.

Another option for accompanying partners who are waiting to obtain their open work permit is to do volunteer work, preferably with an organization that has an established program that provides things such as a record of volunteer work and reference letters for volunteers. But make sure you also have a plan to look for work in your own field after you have built up enough Canadian experience in these entry-level and volunteer roles.

5. Explore all formal supports available

Finally, it will be useful to explore what kinds of career, employment and other support programs and services your spouse/partner’s university provides for international student families.

Although some campus-based services will be limited to students, other services may extend to accompanying partners. And if a couple of years passed since you last explored this, it might be worth looking again, in case the university changed its policies in response to the increased numbers of international students they are recruiting. Taking the time to do this may provide you with important information and support for you to pursue your future career goals.