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  • Writer's pictureNyo Malek

Asian Heritage Month: Advancing Leaders Requires a Hard Look at Existing Barriers

Asian Heritage Month, celebrated every May in Canada and the US as AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Heritage Month, is crucial for raising awareness, highlighting contributions, and recognizing Asian people. The Asian diaspora includes East Asian, Southern Asian, Western, Central, and South East Asian people. 


This year, the theme is Advancing Leaders through Innovation. 


Many notable Asian Canadian Leaders have demonstrated their innovations and created success stories that span industries. In the Arts, we have renowned filmmaker and documentarian on societal issues, Nisha Pahuja; in Science, doctor and leader of cystic fibrosis research, Dr. Lap-Chee Tsui; and in the Social sector, social justice advocate and multiculturalism champion Monica Wu. 


Like many, these leaders were once students and newcomers to Canada. Before becoming an industry leader in innovation, leaders need growth opportunities to lead to their success, often offered in post-secondary institutions. However, when policy change creates barriers impacting International students and workers' entrance into Canada, direct and significant challenges to innovation and the advancement of Asian leaders occur. 


By the numbers

According to Stastica, in 2024, there were a significant number of international students and workers in Canada, with data collected in 2022 or 2023. For students with a valid study permit in 2022, those from the Asia diaspora accounted for 505,170 people from 6 of 10 countries. Under the International Mobility Program, in 2022, the number of permit holders from the Asian diaspora was 199,520 from 5 of the 10 countries. With the temporary foreign worker program, in 2023, the number of permit holders from the Asian diaspora was 54,765, representing 5 of 10 countries. 


Barriers to success

Barriers make it challenging to integrate into a new society, and for many Asian International students and workers, this can impede success. This Medium article highlights five common barriers that International students face: differences in language, cultural adjustment, money issues, housing challenges, and limited job opportunities. A common factor amongst these barriers is the cause of stress or anxiety for these individuals. Finding resources for mental health support through the community or with professionals is imperative.


Policy Change

In addition to these barriers, a policy change has dramatically impacted how students and workers come to Canada. In January 2024, the federal government put a cap on the number of international students who can study in Canada, with 360,000 study permits allowed to be shared amongst the different provinces, a 35% decrease from 2023.


The Canadian Government cites pressure on housing, health care, and other services for this decision. However, these existing systems, like the housing crisis and rising cost of living, are already issues for Canadians that won't be solved by limiting the number of International students entering the country. In contrast, bringing resources to help with the different crises will further support Canadians.


There were some additions to the policy change that will support students, such as graduates of Master's programs being able to obtain a 3-year permit, maximizing their work opportunities. At the same time, some policy changes are harmful, such as Master's and doctoral students being allowed to have an open work permit for their partners, but students in all other programs cannot obtain the permit. The inability to bring a partner while studying minimizes a student's support network during an already stressful period and puts students in a position to work and study as their partner's financial support is no longer available.


Policies promoting the growth of all International students and workers must be enacted to advance leaders through innovation. There are still upcoming changes in the policy for international students and workers, and we look forward to the Canadian government's policy change to better support students.


How can organizations support Asian International students and workers? 

  • Hire International Students and Workers. Embrace diversity and inclusion in your workforce, recognizing the unique perspectives and contributions that Asian international students and workers can bring.

  • Celebrate and highlight the contributions of Asian individuals not only in May but year-round. Representation matters, and teaching this group what others like them have contributed in novel and innovative ways is aspirational.

  • Please focus on the experience, not where it took place. Many organizations disqualify candidates with out-of-country work experience, which directly impedes the success of many individuals. Be the one to foster growth and not be a barrier. 


As we wrap up Asian Heritage Month, let's remember to advance leaders and promote innovation by supporting International students and workers on their paths to success. 

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