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Kareem Bassirri

Join the club: How McMaster's clubs and teams help international students feel more at homeMay 6, 2019

With more than 300 clubs and teams at McMaster University, there's something for everyone. Here's how some of McMaster Engineering's international students felt more at home as a result of them.

Getting involved helped Troy Kuang combat one huge aspect of the first-year experience that most international students face during their first few months in Hamilton: homesickness.

The native of China’s willingness — and eagerness — to go beyond boundaries and create connections with domestic and international students alike paid off.

During his time at McMaster, Kuang has volunteered with McMaster Arts for Children, making crafts with children in need, and worked as head of logistics for DeltaHacks, a student-run hack-a-thon for social change on campus.

Troy Kuang.

Finding friends and a sense of community through extracurricular activities can turn that feeling of being lost around, says Kuang, a fifth-year Computer Science student at McMaster.

“Don’t be afraid to step out of your own comfort zone,” he says. “Most international students sort of gravitate toward each other and they really miss out. It’s hard to overcome your fears. But people are nice, and my friends are now my family.”

“I realized that McMaster was a place where people could grow together as a community and succeed,” says Kuang.

There’s plenty of activities for students like Kuang to get involved with.

McMaster students benefit from the focus the university places on experiential learning, which encompasses any activity where students have the opportunity to learn leadership, technical and teamwork skills beyond the classroom. These include volunteering, participating in an industry-sponsored activity and involvement in clubs and teams. 

McMaster offers more than 300 clubs and teams on campus, including several that are engineering specific, ranging from car teams to bridge building groups to social advocacy clubs and even a musical group for those who like to express their artistic side.

At McMaster, each student is challenged to do more than attend classes. They are encouraged to become a “whole” engineer – one that is analytical but also creative, societally aware as well as self-aware, thoughtful and reflective but also collaborative and a solid team player.

“This kind of engineer is emotionally intelligent, proficient and creativity,” says Arlene Dosen, Director of Outreach and Community Engagement, McMaster Engineering. “This engineer is one with empathy, who doesn’t rush to quickly develop a solution that doesn’t consult with the end-user or client. The ‘whole’ engineer is a good listener.”

Becoming the 'whole engineer'

Donning a red suit helped fourth-year Mia Huang become the whole engineer.

Huang, who travelled from China to Hamilton for the first time at the age of 16 to start at McMaster, knew from an early age that she wanted to attend the top-ranked institution. Now a Chemical Engineering student, she is deeply active in extra-curricular clubs and teams, including the Welcome Week team for McMaster Engineering dubbed the “Red Suits.”

Mia Huang.

Huang is involved with the McMaster Solar Car Projectand a bridge-building competition, but there are numerous other clubs and teams devoted to enhancing the engineering student experience at McMaster. Women in Engineering, Engineers Without Borders, and the McMaster Engineering Musical(a personal favourite of Huang’s) are only a few that enhance student life, allow students’ the opportunity to gain practical skills and experiences, and develop both academically and personally.

“Choosing a club or team depends on what kind of work you want to do and what kind of life you want,” says Huang. “You have to decide what works best for you, and then just choose something. There’s something [at McMaster] for everyone.”

Innovation and curiosity

Many students’ cite the high reputation of the faculty, the promising flexibility of the co-op program, and the sense of community and pride on campus, as reasons for choosing to study at Mac Eng.

The Faculty of Engineering also boasts one of the largest undergraduate research programs in Canada. In 2017, McMaster Engineering faculty members mentored 269 undergraduate students in research projects. Innovative and curious, and one who takes initiative whenever she can, Huang created her own research opportunity.

As a top research-intensive university, students gain invaluable skills in research that are easily transferrable to real-life applications. Huang agrees that her summer research experience has helped her gain a new understanding of what life is like “outside of school.”

Huang says shelearned how to be more independent and to communicate better, both in one-on-one conversations, as well as when presenting in front of groups. It was a key experience for Huang who had never had a research role at the university before.

“At the same time, it helps me to realize the fact that there are still lots of space I can improve and I need to improve on,” says Huang. “The research helped me to find what can I do, what do I really want to do and how could I get there.”

Sa’ida Shdaifat, a third-year Chemical Engineering student from Jordan, encourages first-year international students to pack the essentials when coming to Hamilton from their global hometowns.

 Sa'ida Shdaifat.

A healthy dose of courage is one of those essentials.

Though she was excited from the beginning to be attending McMaster, Shdaifat was no stranger to the same barriers that many first-year international students face. Shdaifat experienced hesitation, discouragement, and pangs of homesickness during first year.

'Keep going and persist'

However, having gotten involved with Engineers Without Borders, a group that works to bring change to Sub-Saharan Africa and at home, Shdaifat now looks back and reflects that it was a combination of support from family and friends, and the particularly encouraging sentiment from her first-year Physics professor, Reza Nejat, that got her through.

“Keep going and persist,” Shdaifat says. “If I could get through, so can you. I was a little lost in first year, but McMaster is home now.”

Haoran Liu.

Mentorship was key to both Haoran Liu’s car team experience and personal success. Engineering professors and the mentorship they offer are key to EcoCar, a control system model simulation where students work to create a test-ready hybrid vehicle which professors have offered students research and office space to complete.

Though he enjoys spending most of his time in the lab, Liu says he’s not alone. Some of his best friends were made as a result of EcoCar as well as Mac’s autonomous robot-making team RoboMaster, for which Liu is a project manager. In July 2019, the team will travel to China for a few weeks to compete in the annual RoboMaster Competition, which will bring his two homes together.

“McMaster is a friendly campus where people share ideas and are willing to help out,” says Liu. “It’s important to get to know people, and it’s easier than you think.”