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Wellness Resources for International Students

Wellness Resources for International Graduate Students

What is Wellness? Wellness is a term that can mean different things to different people. The Global Health Institute defines wellness as “the active pursuit of activities, choices, and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health”. Wellness is multidimensional and covers a wide range of categories including physical, emotional, spiritual, social, vocational, financial, and cultural wellness. Check out the different categories below to learn more about these dimensions and the resources available to you on and off campus.

Table of Contents

Physical Wellness

What is Physical Wellness?

Physical wellness is defined as taking care of your body and making consistent lifestyle choices that maintain and/or improve your physical health.

Physical Activity

Promotion to have physical activity has been a key focus of the Government of Canada. Although we all know that we need to be active, approximately 87% of Canadians agree that people know they need to be more physically active (https://www.participaction.com/en-ca/resources/pulse-report). Generally, Canadians have a culture that recognizes physical activity as a positive aspect and associate lack of physical activity with increased risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

There are many ways to get active on- and off-campus. In fact, you can get physical activity at your desk between studying and especially for graduate students, while sitting at the lab bench or in the office. Many on-campus activities are provided by University of Waterloo Athletics and Recreation. Through this service you can access sport facilities (e.g. squash courts, swimming pool, soccer fields) and a large variety of programming. For example, by purchasing a fitness class membership, you can access as many fitness classes as you want throughout the week. Some of these include kickboxing, yoga, spin, HILT, and more. If rock climbing is of interest, consider checking out the brand new rock climbing wall on campus. Want to participate in physical activity programming off campus? Consider checking out the various studios and programs where you live. 

All four seasons are experienced in the Region of Waterloo and some physical activities are more popular in some seasons than others. Popular winter activities include ice skating (indoor and outdoor), tobogganing, ice fishing, skiing, and snowboarding. In warmer weather, activities such as golf, frisbee, swimming (indoor and outdoor), rollerblading, biking, skateboarding, soccer, football, and archery. Two common Canadian sports played in any season are hockey and curling. Similarly, in every season you’re likely able to exercise outdoors. If you’re a parent, the Region of Waterloo has many outdoor playgrounds, parks, and trails that your children will enjoy.

Food and Nutrition

Part of taking care of your physical wellness is making sure you are consuming what your body needs (e.g. water, vegetables, fruits, and other nutrients). Being such a multicultural environment, grocery stores and restaurants in Canada often offer a large variety of delicious options. There are many general grocery stores to choose from in Waterloo Region and specific ethinc food stores as well. Additionally, graduate students are welcome to come to Graduate House on campus, a restaurant and space hosted by the Graduate Student Association where students can enjoy a home-cooked meal and meet other students. 

In order to make nutrition based choices in a grocery store, it may be helpful to understand the food labels that you will often see on products in Canada (e.g., knowing how to read a Nutrition Facts table). If you are looking for some suggestions on what to purchase, some of the most consumed fruits and vegetables in Canada include apples, asparagus, avocados, bananas, bell peppers, and blueberries. 

It is also important to know that although it is important to make frequent nutrition based decisions, it is also okay to eat items sometimes that are not high in nutritional value. There are many dessert and/or treat based stores in Waterloo Region you may enjoy. In Canada, it is common for friends, peers, families, and dates to go get a treat while spending time together. In relation to other options, some treats you might come across that were invented in Canada include butter tarts, beaver tails, and nanaimo bars. Find out more about food and nutrition here

Sexual Wellness

Sexual wellness relates to multiple topics. It relates to managing your sexual and intimate relationships with others, preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections, knowing what informed consent means, understanding sexuality and gender identity, fertility and birth control options, and more. Sexuality can be experienced differently from person to person, including different preferences for sexual activities (e.g. types of sex, using sex toys), different partners, a difference in the number of partners, etc. In Canada, people also vary on how open they are to talk about sexuality. It is not uncommon to meet people who are very open and honest about their sexual experiences. For some people, it is a normal conversation topic. On campus, you may even come across events that focus on sex, relationships, and wellness (e.g. safe love trivia, sex toy bingo). 

As a parent it may be important to know that children are also usually taught about certain aspects of sexual health under the Ontario education system. You can find out about what children learn in each grade by checking out the Human Development and Sexual Health curriculum here

Substance Use

Some people choose to use substances such as drugs and alcohol to relax and/or cope with stresses in their life. However, this can sometimes become problematic. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, it is estimated that 21% of the Canadian population will experience some form of addiction at some point during their lives. Some indicators of addiction may be craving the substance, losing control over how often you use the substance, feeling compelled to use the substance, and continuing to use the substance even after experiencing negative consequences (e.g. losing relationships). Use of some substances can do major short and long term damage to your body and can sometimes result in death. Not only can using substances damage your own body but can sometimes hurt others as well. Learn about responsible drinking, the risks of vaping and smoking, and more here

As an international graduate student, you may experience unique stresses that may tempt you to use substances to alleviate the stress. Know that there are other healthier stress management options available that you may enjoy more as well including spending time with friends, counselling, exercise (e.g. joining a sports team), getting outside and into nature, joining a conversation group, or doing something you love.

Housing, Transportation, and Safety

In addition to the above topics, there are other things you can do to make sure you stay physically safe while attending school in Canada from knowing how to find housing to protecting yourself against bug bites and everything in between. 

Housing

There are many different housing options in Canada and more specifically in Waterloo Region. There are also many things to think about when selecting a place to live including the cost of rent, what resources are included in your rent (e.g., hydro, internet, laundry, parking), who manages the property, location, and potential issues with the property (e.g. mold, bed bugs, cockroaches). If you are going to be renting a place to live, it is very important to know what your lease says as well. Some property management companies in Waterloo rent out individual rooms, which means that you may only be responsible for your bedroom and common spaces. Others rent out units as a whole, meaning that if one of your roommates stop paying rent or damages their room, you may be held responsible as well. Luckily, if you are unsure where to look for housing, would like some clarity on what your lease means before signing it, or want to know about your rights as a tenant in Ontario, there are resources available! In addition to the resources listed below, you can access Off Campus Housing, a resource on campus that can help you with many topics related to housing in the area. 

Transportation 

There are different ways to get around Waterloo Region. One of the most common ways students travel in the area is by taking a bus or the ION light rail under Grand River Transit (GRT). On the GRT, you can travel to different places in Waterloo, Kitchener, Cambridge, Elmira, St. Jacobs, and New Hamburg. An important thing to know is that if you are enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Waterloo and paying your fees, your WatCard is your unlimited pass to getting you on the GRT! See how it works here

Looking to travel a different way or to another region? There are other services available to you including Go Transit , Uber, and Waterloo Taxi. If you are prepared, comfortable, and willing to do so, you may also consider getting a vehicle to drive yourself around. Driving in Ontario has strict rules and involves a tiered licencing system that everyone must go through. If you are interested in learning how to drive, there are a variety of driving schools in Waterloo Region that will teach you. For more information about driving in Canada, you can check out the International Student Guide, and information provided by the Ontario government

General Safety and the Great Outdoors

If you are ever in an emergency situation, calling 9-1-1 on your phone is a good decision. 9-1-1 will connect you with police, ambulance, and fire fighting services…..

There are other things to think about to make sure you stay safe while you are enjoying life in Canada. Some of these things include protecting yourself from and treating bug bites. Especially if you are exploring the many forests in the area, you may stumble across a variety of these including ticks, mosquitos, wasps, and spiders. Additionally, when exploring the outdoors, it is important to know about water safety. Ontario is home to 250,000 lakes! As an international student, you may want to head north to check out the beautiful places in areas like Muskoka, or you may want to take a ride in a boat. If you want to do this, it is valuable to know how to keep you and your family safe by the water. If you don’t know how to swim and would like to learn, Warrior Recreation offers lessons. Additionally, Ontario Parks offers a helpful list of water safety tips

Other things to consider when exploring the outdoors is protection from the sun and weather. Even on cold winter days, it is still important to wear sunscreen and sunglasses to protect your skin and eyes. Additionally, before arriving in the area, you may want to read about the different temperatures and weather typically experienced throughout the year in Waterloo Region. To give a basic idea of what it might feel like outside, it is best to be prepared for anywhere from -30 to +30 degrees celsius during the year depending on the season. In addition to temperature, Ontario experiences a variety of weather conditions including high humidity, rainfalls, and the potential for tornadoes during the summer months and snowstorms during the winter time. Some of these conditions can temporarily knock out your electricity. Check out what you might want to have on hand in case of a temporary power issue or an emergency by checking out Canada’s Emergency Preparedness Guide.

Physical Wellness Resources

Emotional Wellness

What is Emotional Wellness?

Emotional Wellness is all about taking care of your feelings, thoughts, and coping with the challenges that may come your way in life. Everyone can experience a wide range of emotion, including sadness and/or anger that may appear when you are experiencing stress. It is important to take care of your emotional and mental wellbeing so you can better cope with stressful life experiences, navigate change, and enjoy life to the fullest. Emotional wellness is highly intertwined with the concept of mental health.

Mental Health

Mental health, although poor mental health is usually associated with different mental disorders, having good mental health does not just mean the absence of mental illness. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to [their] community”. There are many factors that can impact your mental health and emotional wellbeing including social experiences (e.g. relationships and interactions with others) as well as psychological (e.g. stress), and biological factors (e.g. physical health issues).

Stigma

Stigma can be defined as when someone “sees you in a negative way because of your mental illness” (“Stigma”, 2015). It is our responsibility as a society to end the stigma through educating people about mental health, understanding how we can work together to improve wellbeing, and encourage others to seek help when they need it. Similar to how a person would go see a doctor if they broke their arm, it is valid to see a doctor and take other steps to help yourself  if you are experiencing issues with your mental health. 

If you ever experience issues with your mental health, know that you are not alone. In fact, mental illness is unfortunately a common phenomenon. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness or addiction in any given year. In relation to post secondary students, according to the 2019 Canadian National Health Assessment, 51.6% of students who participated in the study reported that they had “felt so depressed it was difficult to function” (p. 14) at some point over the last 12 months. Over the same time frame, 68.9% of students experienced overwhelming anxiety, and 63.4% stated that they had experienced a traumatic situation that was difficult to handle. 

As an international graduate student at the University of Waterloo, there are unique factors that may impact your mental health. Some of these things include feeling isolated during your studies, juggling multiple things in your life (e.g. being a parent or caregiver, navigating a pathway to enter Canada) and facing imposter syndrome (e.g. feeling like you don’t belong here). Please know that there are resources that can help you.

Counselling and Support Groups

When seeking support for mental health, you may want to consider speaking with a counsellor. Counsellors are people who can help you with your mental health. On campus, you can access resources like Counselling Services, where you can speak one on one with a counsellor confidentially about a variety of issues (e.g. dealing with life transitions, eating disorders, roommate problems, relationship issues, grief, self-esteem, stress management, sexual abuse, gender identity, family struggles, anxiety, depression). As an international student, we understand that you may be more comfortable speaking with someone in your first language. Counselling Services offers support in the form of individual appointments, group therapy, workshops, and mindfulness exercises. If you are looking for more information about Counselling Services or would like to book an appointment, you can call 519-888-4567 ext. 32655. 

Are you currently not in Waterloo? Check out Empower Me, a service included in your student fees where you can connect with qualified counsellors 24/7 any day of the year. This service is confidential, culturally sensitive, faith inclusive, gender inclusive, multilingual, and can be accessed anytime toll free by calling 1-833-628-5589 from anywhere in Canada or the United States. You can also click here for more information including phone numbers to access Empower Me from other countries.

There are also group therapy and workshop sessions available where you can talk with counsellors alongside other students who may be having similar experiences. An example of this is the Grad Student Community Conversation Circle. You may also want to check out the Candid Talks with Grads Series hosted by the Graduate Student Association, an informal discussion and support event where students can learn about resources, and share their experiences and tips on that month’s topic. Some topics covered to date in this series include being a parent or caregiver, issues faced by international students during COVID-19, and imposter syndrome. 

Culture Shock

As a graduate student who is new to Canada, you may experience culture shock. When transitioning to life in Canada, you may experience this through disorientation, anxiety, and other stress associated with experiencing a way of life, attitudes, and customs that may be different from your home country. The Student Success Office’s International Student Guide provides some strategies for overcoming this experience including asking questions, keeping an open mind, meeting and socializing with other students, exploring the region, staying connected to home, and trying new things. An additional tip is to consider volunteering in the community. This is a great way to learn about Canadian society, meet new people, and add to your resume! There are even opportunities to work and/or volunteer directly with the Graduate Student Association on campus. 

There are some resources available that may be good to check out as an international student when you arrive in Canada or before you come to learn about Canadian culture. Here you can learn about Canada and its society in general, including information on what the geography looks like here. Some fun facts to know is Canada is the second largest country in the world (land wise) and spans across 6 time zones east to west! Canada’s official languages are French and English. In Waterloo Region, English is the most common language you will come across. Although this is the case, Canada is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. Many people who live in Ontario come from a large variety of ethnicities and cultures. It is common to see these different cultures celebrated throughout the year through holidays, displays, and festivals. 

Regarding social norms in Canada, as the International Student Guide points out, Canadians are generally known to be polite, on time, patient (it is common to have to wait in line for accessing a service), and respecting multiculturalism. It is important to note that although many people are like this, not everyone is! Discrimination and other issues still do arise. If you ever face issues, know that there are resources available to help you like the Graduate Student Association, the Human Rights, Equity, and Inclusion Office on campus, and the Ontario Human Rights Code

Self-Care

Self-care is all about caring for yourself. It is not necessary to wait until you are experiencing poor mental health before practicing self-care. In fact, it is best to practice self-care proactively to keep you well! Campus Wellness offers some suggestions on how to do this. Some of these include using self soothing techniques (e.g. listening to music you love, taking a nap or shower, watching a movie), engaging your brain (e.g. singing, drawing, gardening), connecting with others (e.g. meeting up with a friend, volunteering, texting, baking for someone), changing the scene (e.g. going for a drive or walk, going to a cafe, going for a hike in the forest), and exercising (e.g. dancing, riding a bike, stretching). Finding it challenging to make sure you leave room for self-care in your schedule during a busy week? Try setting a timer, putting it in your calendar or phone, or leaving a note for yourself. 

Taking time to practice self care is especially important for international students and parents/caregivers. Graduate students in these positions face unique stresses navigating a new country and/or caring for other members in your family. It is important to find some time for yourself to relax and clear your mind. Interested in learning more? Check out these 15 self-care tips for parents and the International Students and Mental Health presentation created by Counselling Services. 

Emotional Wellness Resources

Vocational and Intellectual Wellness

What is vocational wellness?

The term vocation is associated with employment, your career, and being driven to make an impact. Vocational wellness can be defined as “the ability to balance life with a satisfying vocation that aligns with our skills and values, and challenges us in an effort to recognize the importance of satisfaction, enrichment, and meaning through our work” and can include things like education, building relationships with peers, goal fulfillment, enjoying your field of study/work, volunteering, and exploring opportunities (“Nine Dimensions of Wellness”, 2021). 

As a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, there are many things you can do to help foster your vocational wellness. The Centre for Career Action on campus is a great resource available to all students. Through this service you can get co-op support, help with career planning, career management strategies, searching for work, and setting goals that are meaningful to you for your career path. The Centre for Career Action also hosts a variety of workshops for graduate students on topics including networking in academia, resumes and cover letters, interviewing for jobs, creating a Linkedin profile, and searching for jobs. 

Healthy Workplaces

Related to vocational wellness is working in a workplace that supports you and is safe (physically, mentally). Ontario and the University of Waterloo both have strict policies and regulations for employers and employees to follow to keep everyone safe and well. At the University of Waterloo, the Safety Office is largely responsible for overseeing programs that keep employees safe. This includes things like offering first aid training, overseeing health and safety committees, and emergency preparedness. One policy at the University of Waterloo that protects employees (including graduate students who are temporary employees-teaching assistants, research assistants) is Policy 34: Health, Safety, and Environment. This outlines protocols, roles, and obligations that staff members must follow to protect employees. This includes procedures for handling workplace violence. Another policy that may be useful to know about is Policy 33: Ethical Behaviour. This policy protects all members of the university community from discrimination, different forms of harassment (e.g. sexual, workplace), and poisoned environments

What is Intellectual Wellness?

Intellectual wellness can be defined as “the ability for one to learn, experience, and utilize intellectual capacities through creative and stimulating mental activities with the goal of expanding one’s knowledge and skills” (“Nine Dimensions of Wellness”, 2021) or “being open to new ideas, thinking critically and finding ways to be creative” (“Intellectual Wellness”, 2021). Having good intellectual wellness includes the ability to think critically, manage your time, explore new ideas, and express yourself. 

There are many resources at the University of Waterloo to help you succeed academically like the Writing and Communication Centre or the Centre for Teaching Excellence,  and podcasts to support you in your personal development. One of the most important resources to know about on campus in relation to intellectual wellness academic success is AccessAbility Services. This is a service that works to ensure that all students can access education at the University of Waterloo in a full and meaningful way. Particularly, staff at AccessAbility Services are there to help any student who may have a disability (mental and physical) get the accommodations they need to succeed. Even if you have a suspected disability that is not yet diagnosed, students are encouraged to reach out to this service for information. 

Working and Studying in Canada as an International Student

In Canada, there are regulations around working and studying in Canada that international students must follow. This can present obstacles for those who may want to get a part time job during their degree or stay in Canada after their degree ends. There are resources available that can help you navigate these processes. The Student Success Office is one of these resources. This office provides one on one immigration consulting, information on how to follow Canadian regulations while studying at the University of Waterloo, and applying for work permits, a social insurance number, and jobs!

Vocational and Intellectual Wellness Resources

Social/Relational Wellness

What is Social/Relational Wellness?

Social/relational wellness is all about having healthy relationships and social interactions with the people around you. This includes “enjoying being with others, developing friendships and intimate relations, caring about others, […] letting others care about you [, and] contributing to your community” (Stoewen, 2017). People are designed to be social, and it is important for your overall wellbeing that this component of your life improves or maintains that wellness instead of degrading it. Some of the components of maintaining your social/relational wellness include having a strong network and community and knowing how to communicate with others. 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5508938/

Social Networks and Communities

Building a social network and feeling like you are part of a community is important for all graduate students, but it may be particularly essential for international students. Coming from a new country and having to build a new network from the start may be a scary and daunting task. However, it can also be fun! There are many ways you can build your social network in Canada. A good starting point would be to check out all of the events run at the University of Waterloo. Some are even specifically designed to help international students transition to Canada, make new friends, and become part of the Waterloo community. Some examples of this are the international student mixers run by the Graduate Student Association and the International Peer Community hosted by the Student Success Office. However, there are many more general events open to all graduate students that you are encouraged to check out! Some other great tips for building a social network in Canada include joining a local a team or club, talking to your professors, spending time in the Student Life Centre or library, starting conversations with your classmates, joining social media groups, and volunteering for a local cause or internally at the University of Waterloo.

Communicating with Others

Communication is not just about the words that come out of your mouth. It also includes what you write down, your body language, your tone, expressions, listening, understanding, the technology you use, and more. Communication is an important part of developing social relationships with others. International students can sometimes face extra challenges when communicating with others when they first arrive in Canada. This is completely understandable since communication looks different all around the world! From different languages to body signals, learning how to communicate with others in a different culture can sometimes be confusing. Luckily, there are multiple resources that can help you (and all students in general) improve your communication with strategies like this post from the Student Success Office outlining 16 useful tips for improving social skills. Some of these tips include trying not to overthink the situation, being prepared to meet new people, being conscious about social “give and take”, practice active listening, and allowing mistakes to be made sometimes.

One of the first steps for improving communication as an international student when you arrive may be getting access to a phone. In Canada, we have multiple different companies that can supply you with this service. You can check out this handy blog post from the Student Success Office that outlines how to buy a phone in Canada. 

Healthy Relationships

Unfortunately, sometimes relationships with others are not healthy or good for you long term. It is important to be able to identify what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like so you can surround yourself with people who truly care about you, treat you well, and want to see you succeed in life. This does not only apply to friends or classmates you meet in your journey at the University of Waterloo. It applies to everyone you are going to have social relationships with like family members, roommates, romantic partners, employers, coaches, supervisors, mentors, etc. 

You deserve to be treated well and it is not okay for anyone to manipulate or treat you poorly. In a social relationship you should feel respected, safe (physically, mentally, etc), heard, and supported. Some warning signs of an unhealthy relationship include feeling humiliated, being controlled, or being physically harmed. However, there are others things to look out for as well. Some resources you can check out are this healthy relationships tool kit or this article on what makes healthy relationships. Having issues with someone at the University of Waterloo (e.g., your graduate supervisor)? Consider booking a confidential advising appointment with the Graduate Student Association’s Student Wellness Coordinator by contacting gsa-wellness@uwaterloo.ca or filling out this contact form. You can also check out the services offered by the Human Rights, Equity, and Inclusion Office which also houses services related to conflict management.

Social Wellness Resources

Spiritual Wellness

What is spiritual wellness?

Spiritual wellness can be defined as “the ability to establish peace and harmony in our lives through a guiding set of beliefs, faith, values, ethics, or moral principles that provide meaning, direction, and purpose” (“Nine Dimensions of Wellness”, 2021). This area of wellness can include things like belonging to something greater than yourself, feeling connected to others, faith, etc. Not everyone defines themselves as spiritual and the meaning of spirituality and what it looks like in practice may look different between people. There are resources available to help you learn about spirituality if it interests you and for information on where you can access spaces to practice your spirituality or faith on and off campus.

On Campus Resources

Off Campus Resources

 

Financial Wellness

What is financial wellness?

Financial wellness can be defined as “the basic understanding of, and ability to function within, one’s economic and tax system” (“Nine Dimensions of Wellness”, 2021). This dimension of wellness can include various topics including budgeting, avoiding debt, saving for the future, knowing what information is needed to make a financial decision, donating, understanding how taxes work, and knowing how to pay bills. 

Budgeting and Saving Money

Saving, budgeting, and priotisting costs can be challenging. This is especially the case for graduate students since many need to live with a fairly low income while they are still a student. Luckily, there are resources available to help students make financial choices and navigate all things related to money. The University of Waterloo offers informational resources on managing your budget as a student and tips for spending

Some useful tips for students include making sure you are putting money aside for future unexpected expenses, checking your bank account often (this is good to see how your money is being spent and to make sure fraudulent purchases are not being made in your name), organizing your meals weekly (to help you manage grocery shopping costs), looking for sales and discounts, and finding ways to have fun on a budget or for free (e.g. going for a hike). Need some help organizing your monthly spending? Check out this useful budgeting calculator available to everyone. Another great tip for saving money is to purchase items (e.g. clothing) used. In Canada, shopping at second hand/thrift stores and garage/yard sales is quite popular. Oftentimes you can get a great deal and find unique things!

Financial Support for International Students

It is common for university students to need some form of financial support to help cover tuition expenses and all of the other costs associated with living (e.g. rent, food, daycare, clothes, transportation). Although there are grants and funding options that are only available to domestic students, there are a variety of funding options for international students when studying at the University of Waterloo. Some of these include the university’s Graduate Student Contingency Bursary, Graduate Completion Award, Graduate Studies Parental Leave Bursary, Graduate Student Daycare Bursary, Graduate Student Medical Leave Award, and University of Waterloo Emergency Loans. Outside of the university there are various funding options as well (e.g., scholarships) including funding sources from your home country.

Taxes in Canada

The amount of taxes you will pay in Canada and how you do so will depend on your residency status. Check here to see if you need to file a tax return to the Government of Canada. As a graduate student, it is also important to know that the Graduate Student Association hosts tax aid services to help students navigate taxes.

Financial Wellness Resources

Last Updated: October 26, 2022

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