Saudi U of T education students graduate with mix of excitement, sadness

A group of Saudi students graduating from the University of Toronto’s teacher’s college on Friday are doing so with mixed emotions, as a diplomatic dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia forces them to return home.

Students ordered to leave by Saudi Arabia were 'transformed’ during year in Toronto, says professor

A group of Saudi students graduated from the University of Toronto's teachers' college on Friday, but will soon have to return to their home country due to a diplomatic row between Saudi Arabia and Canada. (Katherine Holland/CBC)

A group of Saudi students graduating from the University of Toronto's teachers' college on Friday are doing so with mixed emotions as a diplomatic dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia forces them to return home — some earlier than expected.

"They were sad," said Catherine McKernan, an educator at the university's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. "They love Canada — some of them would love to be able to stay."  

McKernan says her 24 students will join more than 100 other Saudis at a graduation ceremony at U of T's Isabel Bader Theatre on Friday. They are among thousands of Saudi students studying at Canadian universities and colleges who have been ordered to leave the country as Saudi Arabia retaliates against the Canadian government for criticising its human rights record.

McKernan says her students were "blindsided" by the news they'd have to return home amid a diplomatic row between the two countries.

While the students are excited and proud of their accomplishments, they're also "sad about the wedge between the countries," she said.

Freedom 'like nothing they've experienced'

Catherine McKernan, an educator at the university's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has been working with teachers from Saudi Arabia. (Submitted by Catherine McKernan)

McKernan says her students, especially the women, were "transformed" over the year that she taught them.

Saudi women, she says, have few opportunities to socialize outside their homes, so they sought out Toronto's Arabic restaurants and spent hours walking the city's streets.

When McKernan asked her students to write about their experience of Canada, one student wrote, "I noticed the beauty and harmony of people walking in crowds, minding only their own business."

"I cannot count how many times I bumped into people by accident when I was looking to others."

In Canada, the student wrote, "no one cares about your clothes, how you look, your relationships, your religion or even your sexuality."

"I learned here to accept other people without judging them based on their looks, backgrounds, identity, religion, but based on how we treat and respect each other."

Another student wrote about her placement at the Toronto District School Board's Greenwood Secondary School, where she was inspired by a teacher working with teenagers with special needs.

"The teacher struggled with them and reached the point of almost giving up. I thought she would finish with as little effort as possible but then I saw the teacher wrote on the back of a sticky note before she did anything to reprimand her students, 'I love my job'. The moment touched my heart," wrote the Saudi teacher.

She said it reminded her that "patience, knowledge and caring are important aspects of being a good teacher."

Educator hopes lessons learned in Canada will stick

The majority of Saudi students studying in Canada are here on grants funded by their government as part of Vision 2030, a wide-ranging blueprint for the royal kingdom's future.

McKernan says educators are key to the modernization plan, which is aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy and developing its health, education and tourism sectors.

"Canada's education system is one of the most respected in the world," said McKernan. It exemplifies a more "co-operative, holistic approach" compared to the Saudi approach, which McKernan says is textbook-based with lots of rote learning.

As a veteran educator, McKernan was hired to teach a course called Building Leadership for Change, which she says was inspired by South Africa's human rights and political leader Nelson Mandela, who famously called education the most powerful weapon someone can use to change the world.

She hopes her student will bring the lessons they've learned here in Canada back home with them as they become educators themselves.

"They were so oppressed culturally and the freedom they experienced is like nothing they've experienced before."