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Journey to Mac Eng: How four first-year students conquered their beginnings at McMaster EngineeringApril 3, 2019

Last year, 15 per cent of approximately 4,800 undergraduate students in the Faculty of Engineering were international, coming from nearly 60 countries.

Is it possible to fall in love with a country and university you’ve never been to?

It was for first-year McMaster Engineering student Sana Syed, an Indian citizen from Dubai.

Each year, hundreds of students like Syed make the journey from their home countries to Canada to attend McMaster University. Last year, 15 per cent of approximately 4,800 undergraduate students in the Faculty of Engineering were international, coming from nearly 60 countries. Across the university, more than 110 countries are represented.

Food finds and favourite seasons

“McMaster really stood out to me,” says 19-year-old Syed. “A lot of my relatives and family friends went to McMaster, so it was a recommended choice, especially Engineering. Canada connected with me because most of the companies here have a good work-life balance. It was a crucial reason that made me realize that this is somewhere I could build my career and future.”

Syed and her father, who travelled with her from the United Arab Emirates, says that as soon as they landed in Toronto, they made the short drive to Hamilton, dropped their suitcases off at their hotel, and explored campus.

“The moment we stepped out of the airport was such an exciting and freeing feeling,” says Syed. “The Student Centre was the first building we visited. It was full of students so I could see how lively it was.”

Sana Syed.

When she isn’t studying or in classes, she likes to walk around Westdale, a thriving district steps away from campus with shops, cafés, and most importantly to Syed, restaurants.

“One of my favourite things to do is go to the different restaurants in Westdale with friends,” says Syed. “Food is very important to me and there’s a lot of variety in Hamilton.”

She says the challenge of starting university and moving so far from home was made easier by the various facilities on campus, especially International Student Services, which hosts workshops to help international students adapt to life in Canada and provides information on things like housing laws and getting a SIN card so students can legally work in the country.

One of the things Syed thought would be the most challenging in her transition to Canada was its notorious winters, but it turned out to be one of her favourite things, allowing her to experience snow for the first time.

“I love the snow,” says Syed. “I have a thing for it; I feel like a kid whenever it snows.”

A love for Canada, rock climbing and poutine

The cold doesn’t bother Shaun Lee, either. When the 19-year-old arrived at McMaster from Kuching, Malaysia, he forced himself to be more extraverted.

“You’re in a new place in a new town with nobody you know, and everyone doesn’t necessarily feel the same because they came from high school, so they have their old friends here while I’m starting fresh,” says Lee. “That was kind of scary, not knowing what would happen. The most important part for me was finding a group of friends. After that, it’s easy to expand.”

Shaun Lee.

Lee says he was attracted to Canada’s reputation for being open and friendly. Coupled with McMaster’s variety of clubs and teams, tree-clad campus and supportive environment, it was the perfect fit for him.

“A lot of universities are more, ‘Do it yourself,’” says Lee. “Here, it’s ‘Let me help you so we can all do it together…’ There’s lots of facilities here. My favourite thing about Canada is definitely the choices of food, especially poutine.”

One of his favourite things to do outside of the classroom is take advantage of the free rock climbing gym available to students while still making time for his passion for martial arts, poetry, and most recently, learning to play guitar.

A warm welcome and a sense of pride

Fabiola Gonzales Rios’ journey to Canada began at 15-years-old when her parents enrolled her at a boarding school in Oakville, a city in between Hamilton and Toronto, so their daughter could improve her English and have more opportunities.

Now 19, the Villahermosa, Mexico native says she knew she wanted to pursue her engineering degree in Canada and was impressed by McMaster Engineering’s consistent top ranking. She had the opportunity to visit campus before making her final decision and recalls the moment she felt at home.

“The first day when we moved in when everyone’s screaming at you, taking your things off the car; it feels like they’ve known you for years,” says Gonzales Rios. “It gave me a great sense of community and reassured me that I made the right decision… Everyone comes from different places and embraces that. Even though I’m international, I feel like everyone around me is the same in a welcoming and nonjudgmental way.”

 Fabiola Gonzales Rios.

Whenever she misses home, she talks to her friends and family on FaceTime, goes out for ice cream and studies to get her mind off feeling homesick.

“My friends here feel like family, so that helps a lot.”

She adds that pursuing her engineering degree outside of her native country has allowed her to develop her sense of self and hold herself accountable to study hard. She also made sure to bring some sentimental items and favourite candy from home, but according to Gonzales Rios, the most important thing international students should bring with them when coming to McMaster isn’t something you can pack.

“A sense of pride of where you come from and the open mindedness to learn about the things Canada has to offer,” says Gonzales Rios. “But implement things you’ve learned from home.”

Embracing the community and nature

Kareem Elmokattaf, an 18-year-old Egyptian citizen from Saudi Arabia, came to McMaster Engineering for similar reasons to his international peers.

“I chose McMaster because it’s such a well-known university and has a lot of diversity. I like getting out of my comfort zone because it challenges me. Canada is such a nice place with really nice people.”

In his energetic hometown of Riyadh, Elmokattaf attended a university fair and spoke with McMaster Engineering alumni who shared their positive experiences with him. Knowing that pursuing a degree in Engineering would mean putting in a lot of hard work, it was important to Elmokattaf to find a school that encourages collaboration and a supportive environment.

“My favourite thing about McMaster is definitely the community,” says Elmokattaf. “I feel part of it and that everyone around me is there for me. I can go up to someone random, ask for help and they wouldn’t reject me… I’ve felt very welcomed.”

 Kareem Elmokattaf.

When he isn’t busy with classes, homework or swimming, which he tries to do every day, he makes time to get off campus and explore the city.

“I love going to the waterfalls,” says Elmokattaf. “I like sitting there and taking in the nature.”

Known as the waterfall capital of the world, Hamilton is home to more than 120 waterfalls, but you don’t have to leave campus to get immersed in nature.

The decision to move more than 10,000 kilometres from home wasn’t easy, but Elmokattaf has never thought twice about his decision.

“Once you take that step,” says Elmokattaf, “you’ll never regret it.”