Is Lakehead University failing their international students?

We sincerely hope not, but here is one student’s experience.

By Shannon Anderson, Editor in Chief, and

Richard Mastrangelo, Layout and Design Editor

On March 16th, an international graduate student came to The Argus office to publically discuss his experience at Lakehead during his two year degree. Following  eight months’ of meetings with various department heads, the Human Resources office, the International Student office, LUSU, and the University ombudsperson with very little progress towards resolution, he was left feeling frustrated and out of options. The student’s experience in Canada has, according to his statements and records, resulted in several courses that were unrelated to his degree, months of work that he has not been recompensed for, and an incredible distrust of Lakehead’s administration and bureaucracy.

The student, hereafter referred to as “Chad” did in fact share his actual name with The Argus, and wanted it published. Chad also shared with us twelve months’ of email correspondence, notes from meetings with administration written by LUSU officials, his transcripts, and the names and contact information for several individuals that The Argus immediately reached out to outlining Chad’s concerns and allegations. The Argus will approach this piece from a double blind perspective where neither Chad nor any Lakehead staff members are named. Only those whose consent we received to publish their names alongside their statements will be included as such, whenever their inclusion would not indicate an otherwise protected party. Our intentions are to avoid implicating or alleging any individual of wrongdoing.

The Argus reviewed Chad’s email records together with notes prepared by him and others: evidence exists supporting the details recorded in this article. We have also seen emails from Lakehead employees and outside contacts that we cannot print, but we spoke to those who were willing to speak with us and printed what we could. We attempted to speak with Chad’s supervisor more than once, and shared with them the concerns and allegations that pertained to them, but have so far not received any comment. If this hasn’t caught your attention yet, during the course of writing this article and reaching out to the involved parties, we have received the following unprecedented honours:  a visit from the Lakehead University Senior Advisor to the President and Director of Media Relations; a letter from an individual’s lawyer reminding us that libel is a thing that exists, and; consultations with our own legal counsel and local media mentor for advice before deciding to go ahead with Chad’s story.

As we compiled and organized the details of this story into a cohesive narrative, an alarming lack of responsibility on Lakehead’s behalf was revealed, alongside the potential for abuse. The Director of Media Relations provided a statement to The Argus on behalf of University administration that; “Lakehead University does not comment on matters regarding members of our University community, however I can share that the Office of Human Resources is aware of, and has been working to resolve, this matter.”

Chad’s story has broad implications. As in international student, he represents a vulnerable person, whose grasp of English and Canadian legal customs is not on par with domestic students. Lakehead, as an institution partnered with the Federal government to receive such students, has a responsibility to ensure Chad and others like him are protected. The situation should never have been allowed to escalate as it has, nor should it ever repeat itself: to this end, and in the interest of the public good of Lakehead’s body of students and staff, we publish the following account.

Chad’s Story

In the latter half of 2014, Chad first applied to a graduate program at Lakehead for the winter term of 2015. After determining his desired degree and educational path, he conversed through email with his future supervisor. According to Chad and email records, his supervisor offered considerable guidance about Chad’s academic plan, not only advising an alternative graduate degree but also assisting him with the transfer. Though Chad was concerned about how his previous experiences would apply to this new direction, he was told by the supervisor that the details would be taken care of, including suggested courses.

In January 2015, Chad arrived in Thunder Bay, but soon discovered that the arrangements made would not actually suit: the courses he was expecting to take were not available, and the program wouldn’t effectively meet his needs. He then made arrangements to re-enter his original program, but was unable to do so and further encouraged to take courses in his current program to secure his status as a student in Canada. Chad did so, attempting to make the best of his situation.

Chad continued his first term studies until April 2015, when his supervisor contacted him regarding possible extra-curricular work. This work would be with a partner outside Lakehead and funded by a grant of 25,000$. The supervisor would be the primary investigator making the initial request for funding, but Chad would be employed as project lead on the actual work involved. Chad stated to The Argus that he was told he would be paid the full amount of the grant for his work. The Argus notes that, according to the website for the grant, that “For personnel such as students or technicians receiving an annual salary, the pro-rated stipend for the six month term should be indicated.”  While several spaces on the grant application forms indicate a space where personnel, research assistants, or students and their associated duties would be listed, the grant provider’s media office told The Argus that they would have no copies of anything a student or other personnel would need to sign. Chad himself only recalls signing a form indicating that while the outside work could not impede the course of his degree, it could not be used for academic credit, and that Chad was an employee only. The lack of clarity around his remuneration became more pronounced over time.

After the supervisor obtained Chad’s agreement and consent in May via email, work on the project officially began. Through the summer Chad was engaged full time, filing daily logs and receiving positive responses from the partner company. His supervisor, however, became less satisfied with Chad’s progress. In a meeting on the 15th of July the supervisor, in Chad’s words, “lost his temper”, and scolded Chad as though he were “a fifth grader”. Chad had presented secondary, less expensive options to proposed project hardware as part of what he considered due diligence; the supervisor made it clear it would be irresponsibly shoddy work to even consider those ideas and refused to acknowledge Chad’s perspective. Chad continued his work, but this time explicitly followed the supervisor’s instruction.

In July the project grant was confirmed, with the funding to be released up to 30 days after processing, according to providers website. This means that Chad was working on the project before any funding had been formally established, and far before the money was made available to anyone, primary investigator included. Despite this, Chad’s work progressed, with more positive feedback from the client according to Chad’s email records and personal recollections.

A particularly muddled aspect of Chad’s story is his understanding that he was to be paid the full amount of the grant. While that seemed unusual to us, it’s technically allowable as per the provider’s funding rules. The Argus was curious as to whether or not there had simply been a misunderstanding about rate of pay, but in an email to the supervisor on July 22nd regarding when the funding would be available, the student very clearly and explicitly laid out his expectations of pay in an email to his supervisor:

From: <REDACTED@lakeheadu.ca>

Date: 22 July 2015 at 14:01

Subject: Re: Fund

To: <REDACTED@lakeheadu.ca>

 

Dear <REDACTED>

It will be almost more than 1.5 months at that time, that is a long time. Can they be send a reminder email and also a confirmation that the amount they are at least depositing to the university is the full $25k, which later can be transfer to the student ($12.5k x 2) easily and won’t take such long time. I believe they need a little motivation and informed that students are in need of financial grant.

The above email was never answered by the supervisor according to Chad’s records. If this had indeed been a misunderstanding on either party’s side, a discussion of this email could have determined the details of Chad’s employment and wage.

In August 2015, the situation escalated. On the 17th, Chad was informed that the money had arrived, and was sent to Graduate Studies to claim it. Chad scheduled a meeting there for the 20th, but was unable to claim it due to not being registered at Lakehead in the Fall term. This was apparently connected to Chad’s status as a Research Assistant, which confused him as he was not aware of being one (though in an email from his supervisor on the 17th, Chad was asked for his student # for an RA form). Furthermore, the full sum was not available immediately as any amount over $5000 must be approved by a dean according to Lakehead policy.

Chad, increasingly confused and frustrated, went to LUSU for aid. In several subsequent meetings with the Accounts department, his supervisor, and HR, Chad was now accompanied by Matt Quick, Vice President of Advocacy. Together, they approached Graduate Studies, and attempted to clarify how the money would be getting to the student.

The student and Vice President Advocacy met with the supervisor in an unplanned meeting that same day. The supervisor reacted very negatively to Matt’s presence, despite students being allowed to seek guidance and participation from LUSU in meetings of this nature. “The role within the VPA is to be able present at any meeting that any student has with faculty or staff as a witness or observer,” Matt explained to The Argus, “Faculty and staff cannot decline or object to this, it is the student’s right.”

The following are the VPA’s notes from the meeting: Redactions of names have been indicated

Date: Aug 20th

Who: REDACTED

Note: These are the notes I have from observing the meeting with REDACTED.

 

– Supervisor told the student they should not assume that they would be getting paid.

– Supervisor got angry and short with the student because I was there as a representative from LUSU. Exact words being “I am not happy that you brought this LUSU person here… this is unexceptionable [sic] behavior”.

– Supervisor had said that because the student came here without asking for funding they should not be asking for funding now.

– Supervisor has said that if the project failed the student would not be paid.

– Supervisor said that the REDACTED grant approval forms are not needed by the student.

– Throughout the meeting the supervisor continued to interrupt the student, not giving them enough time to address concerns.

 

Matt Quick spoke to The Argus very frankly about his experience in that meeting.  “I went with the student to see the supervisor just so the student could drop off a form that would ensure he would be paid… The supervisor got very heated. They were offended that I was present, and then offended when I said that (the VPA was present because) there had been a communication issue.”

Following this, Chad met again with the supervisor, and recorded a variety of comments. The following does not appear in any email record, but Chad’s notes written after the meeting and his own statements to The Argus. Chad wrote that the supervisor made comments referring to the student’s professionalism, and employed manipulative language by implying the student ‘should be grateful’ for his situation. He was now offered a pay change: the supervisor quoted him 3000$ for the first payment, with 9000$ upon completion. Chad’s notes record a heavy implication that this change was intended to motivate better work.

On the 27th of August, Chad injured himself during work, and requested safety equipment. Instead the supervisor offered to show the student how to do the work properly. The next day, the student requested that the supervisor get the Dean to sign off on his funding so that it could be processed. Though it was promised by Monday, nothing was prepared.

On the first day of September, the student met with Human Resources, again with VPA Matt Quick.

Date: Sept 1st

Who: REDACTED

Note: Here are the notes I took in the meeting with HR.

 

Background

– The student is a grad student working on an industry project via REDACTED grant, that they started in May 2015

– Originally told the salary would be $24,000 paid in 2 installments of $12,000.

– The student signed forms hastily, under pressure and without the ability to read them first or say no.

– The student has no power or influence in the project they are working on and must submit daily and weekly reports.

– Had been told the money had not come yet in an in person meeting. All emails seeking these answers had been ignored.

– Supervisor eventually offers other grant money but expects it to be returned.

– Supervisor asked the student for their student number so that they could be made a Research Assistant.

– When REDACTED money finally comes the student was not told and only found out 2 weeks later and only after asking about it.

– Supervisor had not explained how the student would be receiving money.

– Through all this the supervisor has not helped with or initiated grad study research with the student.

– Supervisor was angry with student over details about the project.

– Supervisor has brushed aside the needs for the student to enroll in courses.

 

On September 2nd, Chad notes that he was advised by Graduate Studies to not continue his work until he is paid. In a meeting between the two and Matt Quick on the 8th of September, Chad was given substantial advice, such as to approach the client for a confirmation of employment. The last email Chad received from his now former supervisor was on September 2nd, according to the email records provided.

On September 9th, Chad received email confirmation of his work from the outside company, which was acknowledged to span from May to September. The client also told Chad that they were willing to be a reference for them, and that Chad had done great work. Two days later, Chad set about the process of transferring programs yet again, and was told to fill out a form and have it signed off by Human Resources and the relevant departments.

At this time, Chad was now in talks with Lakehead’s ombudsperson, who attempted to clarify the situation of his work with Human Resources. By the end of the month, and despite repeated emails assuring progress, no details of any conclusion were given to Chad. It was not until October 16th that news is delivered, and it is not what Chad expected. The form he was required to complete earlier was not actually needed, and emails with various departments made it clear the request to have Chad fill out this form was made in error. Chad was then told to apply for the Winter 2016 term as the September 30th deadline for the Fall term had passed, but the information was not properly communicated to the new department the student intended to join. This confusion would only be exacerbated by later emails in November.

On October 20th, Chad asked again for information on his salary: with Matt once more, they met with Graduate Studies. According to Matt’s notes of the meeting, it was explained that despite the bureaucratic delay, the student could still take courses as electives now that would facilitate his desired degree, and that they would apply fully once he was transferred.

On October 26th, Lakehead attempted to de-register the student, at this point still not enrolled in any relevant courses. A member of Lakehead staff from the Accounts Department recalls meeting with Matt and Chad, and how unusual the situation was. “We didn’t want this to hinder his registration at Lakehead, but it did need to be sorted out,” the staff member told The Argus, “It’s unfortunate that this has happened. I remember asking ‘is this a GA, CIRH, a grant’… (Chad) was very unclear as to what his funding was. Generally, if a professor is paying you, it comes from a source, the student should be aware.” The source, unable to assist further at the Accounts level, directed Matt and Chad to the HR department.

That meeting with HR on the 29th was further detailed by Matt Quick’s notes.

Date: Oct 29th

Who: REDACTED

Note:

 

– Outcome of pay negotiations is approximately $4,000 (After this section, we can put my calculations of his wages if needed.)

– This is worth roughly 2 months of work

– (Supervisor) sees pay as based on completed elements of project and believes student hasn’t done much.

– It was argued that the $25,000 could be split between 2 students each earning $12,500 over a 6 month time.

– Student has to return remaining equipment to get paid

– Check myInfo accounts for amount owed to university

– Talk to REDACTED about deductions and taxes

– WSIB complaint made about (Supervisor) to the HR office about injury/damage while working. This is an option that can be pursued.

– REDACTED says that steps will be in place to ensure contracts are made between employers and employees for research projects in future

 

In November, Chad was directed to apply to the new program, effectively restarting the process, with the 100$ registration fee to be waived. However, on November 24th the same department finally informed Chad of the September 30th deadline, but clarified now that said deadline referred not to applications for Fall 2015, but in fact Winter 2016. Even the earliest email, directing Chad to apply on November 5th to the Fall 2015 program, was past that deadline.

These delays and more would push his transfer request past the Winter 2016 term all the way to Spring/Summer 2016 at the earliest. However, according to the University website the deadline to change programs is the last day to register for courses in that term. This would place the deadline for Winter 2016 at January 15th, 2016. The date quoted to Chad, September 30th, relates to applicants to a brand new program, and not specifically transfers within Lakehead. This changes the required deadlines dramatically.

Later in November, Chad attempted yet again to transfer to a new program, working with an adjunct in that department. Chad’s emails refer to significant confusion in the process on the part of the adjunct, where the new department thought the transfer was still meant for Fall 2016. Chad indicated this arose from Graduate Studies earlier stance and misleading emails regarding his delayed application. Though steps were taken to correct the process, it would not prove fruitful. Following a short exchange with Graduate Studies, Chad’s repeated queries on the 23rd, the 26th, and the 30th of November on his application’s status went unanswered.

On December 2nd, Chad received a formal rejection of his application to the new graduate program. Chad felt this was unexpected, as his strong CGPA did not reflect the university’s response. In a meeting on December 10th with Matt Quick and Graduate Studies, it was indicated that someone else needed to help Chad find a new supervisor within his desired department. Though more records exist into 2016, nothing substantial has changed in Chad’s story.

Conclusion

As to how the financial aspect wrapped up? It hasn’t yet. The final amount Chad was offered as pay was 4166.66$. This was calculated based on the assumption that the 25000$ of grant money was intended for two workers, meaning the student either had a colleague he never met or was misinformed. He was also quoted as working two months, despite the confirmation from the client of work from May-September. We can confirm directly from student and employer testimony that Chad worked at the very minimum three and a half months, from mid-May to the beginning of September. If you instead assume that the entirely of the grant was intended for Chad, he would have earned just over half of the 25000$, somewhere in the range of 14500$ and 16000$.

If you take the sum he was offered (4166.66$) for his full time work over at least three and a half months, it works out to 7.43$ an hour: far below the minimum wage. Had the entire grant been rendered in full for a six month period as Chad expected, it would come to 26$ an hour. Whether or not either figure is reasonable, the difference in expected income is dramatic.

This pattern of repeated meetings, emails, and enrollment difficulties stretches back to his first month in Canada in January 2015, and continues to the present date.  Chad alleges academic and financial mismanagement that has jeopardized his earning potential, his reputation as a student, and his mental health and well-being. Chad has not only lost faith in Lakehead’s ability to assist him in any way, but has requested his file with the University ombudsperson be closed so he can approach the provincial ombudsperson directly. Further, he has filed a complaint to the Ministry of Labour. The Ministry’s media department confirmed that a complaint towards Lakehead University is currently in the early stages of investigation and is related to Employment Standards.

We asked VPA Matt Quick about whether he had experienced other instances of international student feeling they lacked support and direction.

“International students feeling brushed aside? Yes,” Matt acknowledged, although for reasons of confidentiality could not refer to specific occasions (aside from Chad, who gave consent). “On a few occasions, people have come (to his office), to rant, complain, get things off their chests. Not formal grievances, but frustrations, lots of them. The services need to be improved.”

The Argus spoke with Farhan Yousaf, current coordinator of the Multicultural Centre. Farhan has heard many concerns that International Students have brought to him, and recalls speaking with Chad several times over the past year. “I’m aware of the case, since about September or October,” says Farhan, “He came to me several times. I don’t have the authority to go much farther than (peer support), but I gave him advice and helped him as much I could.” Farhan went on to say, “students come (to the MCC) every September and January. ‘How do I register?’ ‘What courses do I need?’.  They don’t know where to go. I’ve taken students down to the finance office because they were being charged for health insurance when their government is already paying for that. I can guide people to a translator, but that should be part of it. Other universities have packages in Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Mandarin, whatever. It’s a simple thing that can be prepared and save people so much trouble.”

Chad’s ongoing story is one we would like to hope is unique and isolated, but so long as the system is not seriously reviewed the potential for mismanagement remains. Not only should international students be given more support in recognition of their unique challenges, but Lakehead’s staff in every department should be made aware of the increased potential for struggle that can arise. The issue of pay aside, the fact that Chad has now spent eight months petitioning Lakehead’s departments and still feels that he has wasted two years of his life is harrowing. It is worth noting, in regards to Chad’s frequently unanswered communications, that within six business hours of the The Argus emailing several department heads regarding the student’s allegations, we received an official response from the school’s Media Relations head, so clearly Lakehead administration is capable of mobilization when necessary.

Chad came to us frustrated, upset, and not knowing where else to turn. He asked us for advice in finding legal counsel, whom to contact at larger media networks, and in publishing his story loudly and publically with names attached to ensure his voice was heard and that he can, in his words, “find justice”. We have done the best we could in those avenues, without compromising ourselves legally or ethically. We were not able to publish all the concerns Chad brought to us for obvious reasons, but The Argus sincerely hopes that this goes some small way towards ensuring that stories like Chad’s are heard and that systems are in place to support students like Chad who come to Canada with enthusiasm and trust. Good luck, Chad. The Argus and LUSU are in your corner, and hopefully Lakehead University is, too.

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