Cultivating Community Starts at the Top
February 17, 2021
Advisor, International Students
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
Master of Education, UBC Okanagan
Bachelor of Arts, English, Memorial University
“UBC Okanagan is one of the largest multicultural spaces in the region, and we have a responsibility as educators to change the face of our community, and make this place the way we want it to be.”
WITH HER APPROACHABLE NATURE, DANAI BÉLANGER IMMEDIATELY sets students at ease. As an International Student Advisor, Bélanger assists with everything from selecting and setting up cell phone plans to providing information on immigration law.
“Being an international student advisor is very service-orientated, and this position requires a lot of yourself,” says Bélanger. “I’m often the first point of contact for students coming to not only UBCO, but to Canada, and setting the tone of their experience is a huge responsibility. It’s one I take a lot of pride in.”
Along with her wealth of knowledge, Bélanger offers a shared experience with her international students: she was once one herself.
COLD WEATHER, WARM HEARTS
While many students choose to stay close to home for post-secondary studies, Bélanger’s adventurous spirit had her researching universities thousands of miles away. At only 19 years old Bélanger decided to move more than 11,000 km, leaving behind her friends and family in Kadoma, Zimbabwe to begin her Bachelor of Arts degree at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Reflecting on her arrival to Canada, Bélanger said she felt excited for this new chapter of her life to begin — an opportunity to be in a different place and experience new things. Her flight from Halifax to St. John’s had been delayed and she was exhausted from the long trip. She entered the airport’s arrivals area and felt a sense of relief as she was greeted by a friendly face: A Memorial University student from Belize waiting with a welcome sign, care package and a taxi outside.
“Newfoundland was a wonderful experience. It was my first Canadian experience, and here I was living on this beautiful island and learning about Newfoundland culture while studying. At the time, there weren’t a lot of international students, so everything was new and exciting, and I was involved in a lot of new initiatives.”
Bélanger smiles as she shares her recollection that Newfoundland itself was cold, but the people were warm.
“It was through my involvement outside of the classroom that I think I fell into international education. I was constantly explaining to people what it felt like to be a newcomer, to be an international student, and people would say ‘Wow! You’re so good at explaining this.’ I found myself seeking out more opportunities to educate and be involved.”
CARVING A NEW PATH
Following her graduation, Bélanger started her career at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, a small liberal arts university.
“When I landed my first role working as an international student advisor, I found I had so much practical experience that it was really easy to settle into the role,” she explains.
Two years into her career, Bélanger’s partner was accepted to graduate school at the University of Waterloo. The prospect of going to a bigger city was very appealing and she decided to move as well. She soon found a contract position at the same university.
“I went from having 300 international students to 5,000, and from a team of one to seven. The position helped me a lot professionally, as I was able to learn and grow, but I always missed that intimacy of getting to know my students a bit more.”
With her contract end date approaching, Bélanger found herself reflecting on life.
“Ontario offered me a lot of really good experience, and the environment was diverse and exciting with amazing things going on, but it was very fast-paced. I didn’t grow up in this kind of environment, and neither did my partner. We found ourselves wanting to slow down.”
She started looking at job opportunities across the country, and found a position as an advisor at Okanagan College in Kelowna. Interested in the fast-paced work environment the college could provide while living in a smaller community setting, Bélanger and her partner decided to take a leap and move to Kelowna — despite never visiting the Okanagan.
“I spoke to a few people who all said the same thing: Kelowna is beautiful, there are mountains, wineries and skiing. When I first moved here, as I drove to work, I was amazed at how beautiful this place was.”
IN THE PURSUIT OF CULTIVATING COMMUNITY
“I started noticing how limiting things were for students and new graduates, in terms of finding employment and being able to settle in the community,” says Bélanger. “Some students were coming with their families, and it could be quite difficult for the family members to adapt to this new life — a slower lifestyle for some.”
These observations are what led Bélanger to begin considering graduate school. She knew the importance of cultivating campus community and wanted to explore solutions to community building.
“I’ve always had this educational mindset, so pursuing my Master in Education was a natural fit. When I was really young, I wanted to go into teaching. My mother was a teacher for a number of years, and my mother’s father was a teacher. The impact they had in our community was always very interesting to me.”
Bélanger decided to apply to the Master of Education at UBC Okanagan, since the degree offered her flexibility with evening, weekend and online courses.
“I started my master’s right after the Syrian refugee crisis. During this time, there was a lot of talk about how we were going to create a sense of community, how were we going to welcome these newly-arrived people into communities and build relationships with them,” she says. “I started thinking about how most post-secondary institutions do this every year.”
Bélanger is referring to the hundreds and hundreds of newcomers that move to wherever the institution is, and how that place becomes their home. She began to question what these institutions were doing to create a sense of community — whether they were a small liberal arts college, like Mount Allison University, or the population of a small city, like UBCO.
“Everything started fitting together for me when I realized the importance of how leaders set the example, and essentially drive change on campus. Since I experienced several different institutions, I was able to see what different leadership looked like. All of my best experiences were at institutions where the leadership had a really good understanding of the importance of creating a sense of community on campus. It eventually clicked with me that if you can get institutional leadership to believe in the importance of making our campuses more inclusive and more welcoming, and giving campuses a sense of identity, it trickles down.”
With this in mind for her capstone project, Bélanger explored the role that higher education institutions and their leadership have in fostering community within an international student context.
“My approach was to explore institutional models that work really well, and a big part of that was pulling from my own experiences. I strongly believe that the reason why I got to where I am today was because I had a really good sense of community when I first arrived in Canada.”
“I always say my career helped me prepare for grad school,” says Bélanger with a laugh. “But with my degree, I’ve been able to enter spaces, whether it’s a committee or staff meeting, with the research and the information to back up any requests or insight into new initiatives that we have on campus.”
“When the position at UBCO popped up, I just felt ready,” Bélanger smiles. “I was ready to take the knowledge I had gained while completing my master’s and continue to do what I love!”
Bélanger’s passion for helping newcomers to Canada feel a sense of belonging in their community is what makes her a driving force behind initiatives that help ensure students feel engaged and connected.
“UBC Okanagan is one of the largest multicultural spaces in the region, and we have a responsibility as educators to change the face of our community, and make this place the way we want it to be,” she explains. “We want the community to grow into a space that is welcoming to people from all walks of life.”