The Strand sits down with Professor Joseph Wong to discuss his appointment as Vice Provost, International Experience, and the expanding interest in UofT among American students

The University of Toronto is a massive institution. This was clear to me from the moment I first arrived here in September of 2012. I remember walking into Con Hall on my first day of classes, an 18-year-old kid from a small Ontario town, and being completely and utterly overwhelmed by what surrounded me; twelve hundred of my peers, from every corner of the world, here for the exact same reason as me. All of us had somewhat of an idea as to what we were getting ourselves into at UofT, but I am certain that few were not in shock at the sheer size of the class alone.

I truly believe that, at some point, every student has had a humbling experience here at UofT. For me, that experience came during my very first class on my first day, in POL101, when Professor Joseph Wong opened with the question: “How many of you plan on going to law school after you finish your degree?”

I looked around as three-quarters of my peers, myself included, raised their hands. I’m paraphrasing when I say that his follow-up statement was something like, “Well, that’s not exactly going to happen.”

Law school had always been my dream. I thought that I was unique in this regard, given that it wasn’t such a popular dream in the town where I grew up. In that moment in POL101, what humbled me most was the number of people with the exact same aspirations as me, despite the extremely diverse range of experiences that brought us all into this room together. This is one of the greatest things about attending a school as large and diverse as UofT, and today, it’s something that the University is working to develop even further.

As of January 1st, 2017, Professor Joseph Wong began a new position here at UofT. He now serves as Vice-President and Vice-Provost, International Student Experience. The first of its kind, the position is tasked with improving the experience of international students at UofT, encouraging students at UofT to explore international experiences, and attracting new students from outside of Canada’s borders.

As stated in a press release regarding Wong’s appointment, Vice-President & Provost, Cheryl Regehr and Vice-President, International, Edward Sargent said that the new position “reflects the important priority accorded by the University to the goal of internationalization.” The position reflects UofT’s direction, as voiced by the University’s President, Meric Gertler, to take UofT to the next level, internationally.

Wong explained that UofT’s efforts to expand their influence in this area directly reflect the demands behind maintaining a world-class institution like UofT in the 21st century. “We live in a globalized world, Canada is a globalized economy. It’s important for our young people, the next generation, to have these kinds of global fluencies,” said Wong.

Marketing UofT on the world stage is a large aspect of Wong’s new position, something to which he has been accustomed from his tenure, here, as a professor of Political Science. “My work has always been internationally facing,” he states. “I have taken research teams abroad on many occasions. For me, that is the most energizing part of the job—to see students have these opportunities and make the most of these opportunities. It’s really just broadening that message—for American students to consider, for Brazilian students to consider, or next week, when I’m in Singapore, for Singaporean students to consider.” He explained that UofT has a unique opportunity here. The University currently has a sizeable international student population, but still seeks to explore how we can better dedicate our resources to attracting the world’s best and brightest students.

The University’s reputation currently helps it a great deal to attract these top-tier students from across the globe. For years now, UofT has been consistently ranked among the top universities in the world. In 2016, the Times Higher Education survey ranked the school at #22, directly preceded by Cornell and Northwestern. For many, it comes as a surprise that UofT ranks among the world’s best, given that UofT is not recognized by its name and reputation in the same way as schools such as Cornell, the London School of Economics and Political Science (#25 in the same rankings), and many others that populate the prestigious Top 25 list. Whether our surprise at our ranking is a result of stereotypical Canadian modesty, or due to the recent nature of UofT’s ascent in the world rankings, it is something that Professor Wong seeks to change in his new role.

“What drew me to this position is that the University of Toronto is one of the worlds top universities. It’s one of the world’s Top 25, and it’s important that we get that message out there. Our peers in the Top 25 are globally recognized names, and the University of Toronto is too, but it could probably do a better job of ensuring the rest of the world knows what we’re doing.”

Outside of attracting new students from all corners of the globe, a significant part of Professor Wong’s mandate is to improve the experiences of international students already studying here at UofT. “It is imperative that we ensure that the experiences of international students at UofT are meaningful, that they get the most out of their time here,” he says. “After all, they are our ambassadors after they graduate here and they represent the University on the global stage.”

To do this, he says that the University’s intention is to develop better support systems that attend to the specific needs of international students. At the same time,

these systems should help to integrate them into the greater student body, to ensure that every student at UofT can enjoy the full experience.

This has become more important, as interest has increased among Americans in immigrating to Canada—and more recently, a growing interest among American students in attending Canadian universities, following the recent election south of the border. As Collin Binkley of the Associated Press reported last week, applications to the University of Toronto from the United States have increased by 70 percent, compared to this time last year. Assistant Director, Enrolment, Anne Rose confirmed that UofT “[has] seen a significant increase in interest among American students in attending UofT.”

Professor Wong is less convinced that this would turn into a mass exodus of American students to UofT. “The University of Toronto has had a long-standing strategy of engaging the United States. We have heard, and we suspect, that the election of Donald Trump might encourage more students to at least consider the University of Toronto. I wouldn’t say they are flocking here yet. Certainly, the number of applications has gone up. But we have a long way to go to see if they are going to be accepted and, if they are accepted, if they are going to take up the offer to come here,” states Professor Wong.

Kody McCann, a University of Toronto student from Boston, Massachusetts shares Professor Wong’s scepticism on the issue. “If people are upset with how things are going in the United States, they shouldn’t sideline themselves by leaving the country to find a place where they think their ideas are more accepted. Canada has its fair share of problems and its Universities are by no means perfect bastions of acceptance,” he says.

In discussing his motivations for studying at UofT, McCann said that the political situation in the United States did not influence his decision to study here. “When deciding between a few schools, I realized the opportunities I had going to UofT.” He explains, “I wanted to step outside my comfort zone, and UofT, and Canada as an extension, offered the perfect mix.”

While UofT has already earned a name for itself as a globally-renowned research institution, the new role that Professor Wong occupies signifies an increased focus towards showing the world how great the experience here is for students, and the unlimited potential that comes with earning a degree here.

“I think if we take the lid off what we think in terms of expectations about students, and if we raise those expectations, you guys will rise to the occasion. When we think about the international file, if we lift that lid and we say, ‘This isn’t going to be terribly costly for you, and there’s tremendous value that you can get out of this.’ It’s not just a fun time, you’re going to see the world with your own eyes. The stuff that you read about in class will come to life.”

As we continued to discuss the innumerable opportunities that students have here at UofT and beyond, Professor Wong reminded me of the very thing he said in that POL101 class, on my first day at UofT. “I used to teach POL101 to over 1200 students, and I used to say to students at the end of the class: “You could graduate from this university and just be a number, or you could have an experience here that will be unmatched by any university.