For international students, the journey of starting at UBC can be long and stressful. Aside from the immigration forms and study permits, some may say that one of the most stressful parts is registering for courses. UBC requires two things: a Canadian-equivalent English competency and a second language. If you do not fit into the narrow and rigid realms of what UBC considers to be acceptable, you will be forced to take a zero credits remedial English course and/or a second language regardless of your ability to prove otherwise. In this article, I will outline my personal experience in being forced to attend this remedial class, the steps I took to luckily escape it, the conundrum of my second language requirement, and the implications of this situation. This experience made me ruminate on this thought for the past 4 years: UBC invites diversity but does not accommodate it.
I am a 4th year international student from Trinidad and Tobago, an English-speaking Caribbean country. The rigor of our academic system means what we technically graduate in form 5, at age 16. After this, we can go to university. However, I chose to attend form 6, ages 17-18, which is essentially the equivalent of an Associate’s Degree. At the form 6 level, subjects like Math and English are no longer necessary because we have already been tested for full competence. After this, we delved into more advanced level studies with our own full-length research papers in classes like Communication Studies and other subjects of our choice, and much of that content is being taught at the university level now. This meant that before attending university, I was already fully competent and awaiting a challenging new environment in order to further my education.
At the time of registration, I was restricted from accessing first year English courses and forced into selecting ENGL 009, remedial English for students who did not have an English qualification equivalent to Canadian grade 12. As I previously established, I was already fully competent, came from an English-speaking country, and was well past the grade 12 qualification that UBC required. Somehow, UBC still assessed me as being incompetent at English. I was frustrated at this fact, but I attended the first class anyway because I could not get out of it at the time. In the class, I was clearly not meant to be there. In particular, the student that sat next to me had a very basic level of English. This class was great for them because it allowed them to be able to bear the weight of academic writing in English. However, I, who at this point had been doing academic writing since I was 15, clearly did not belong.
When I got back to my dorm, I immediately wrote an email to the professor to beg her to get me out of this class. I showed her my 100 page research papers that I had to do for my secondary school assessments and immediately got back a response that she believed that I was misplaced. She then sent the email to her colleague who handles prerequisites and exemptions. The person was adamant that my qualifications which I described before were not good enough, but seeing my writing, decided to exempt me anyway. That is how I got out of ENGL 009. I was lucky. I have friends who were not.
This is not the first time that Global North universities have undervalued Global South qualifications. The School of Business in Amsterdam University in the Netherlands has caused controversy by deeming that African degrees outside of South Africa and Ghana only account for 2 years of the same program in the Netherlands. The devaluation of Global South systems and education quality is nothing new and relates to a legacy of inferiority imposed on the Global South by the Global North.
In the time during and after this situation I was put in, many ideas flew through my head, such as: “Why did this happen to me?”
“How could UBC welcome students from my region without doing research on our qualifications?”
“What if I didn’t speak up?”
“I almost wasted thousands of dollars on a course that doesn’t count towards my degree.”
But it is only when I had to fulfill a second language requirement that my thoughts were confirmed. In secondary school, I was required to take a second language for 5 years and I chose Spanish. During this time, we were tested in and learnt far past the year 2 Spanish that we are taught at UBC. But in this case, having to redo Spanish, though annoying, was not my issue this time. It was the fact that I already spoke Trinidadian English Creole but it did not count as a second language.
Creoles of the Caribbean are legacies of slavery and colonialism. For Black Caribbean people such as myself, our ancestors were forced to not speak their languages and adapt to the European languages of the enslavers. This first created a hybrid language called a pidgin, then developed stricter rules as time went by and became people’s mother tongue, thereby becoming a Creole. Variations of Creoles also exist based on the group of people who were brought, the Indigenous population, island to island, and the colonizers of that land. Creoles are often not recognized as official languages, not because they don’t qualify (they do) but because of the legacy of white supremacy and racism in the Caribbean. UBC also has the ability to acknowledge Creole as a second language. In my first year there was a linguistic anthropologist who confirmed that Creoles are in fact languages. I very much do speak two languages, but why is my English not acceptable enough, and my Creole not counted? What language does UBC think I speak?
Creole is not something that is tested or certified in the Caribbean in most contexts because of the history of white supremacy and colonialism. We only were given the opportunity to learn about it in form 6, two years of optional schooling. Creole, despite this, is a language that almost everyone on the island knows as we engage with it every day. This begs the question: does UBC only count testable languages? And if that is the case, then that is a colonial practice that is not inclusive for many people across the Global South. With this seemingly small oversight, this led to the continuation of the marginalization of Creoles as a language group.
After the two years I experienced this, I realized: UBC invites diversity but does not accommodate it. UBC could have hired people to properly assess the English competencies of students like me from the Global South instead of lumping them into a box of not being “acceptable” because they do not fit Global North and Canadian standards. UBC could have asked students to fill out forms or have an available option to assess the need for second language requirements. This is just one thing added to a laundry list of ways that UBC does not account for the diversity they claim to thrive on. Imposing these colonial ideas of rigor and fitting into the standard of a settler colonial state is often harmful to international students such as myself as we navigate through this new environment.
The continuation of this extremely colonial and unaccommodating outlook on Global South languages, particularly Creoles, makes it much harder for these languages to be socially legitimized—continuing the colonial project. Additionally, the improper assessment of Global South academic systems, yet welcoming people from there and disadvantaging them in these ways also maintains a colonial power structure which ultimately harms the “diversity” the university claims to embrace.