At the start of his petroleum engineering degree at the University of Alberta, Tomiwa Brown's goal was to graduate as valedictorian, just like he did in high school.
After realizing the university did not have valedictorians, Brown decided to work hard regardless to achieve the highest academic recognition he could. He found a hands-on learning style that worked for him, and along with some "grit and determination" achieved a 4.0 GPA in the last two years of his degree.
Then Brown learned about another award — the APEGA Past Presidents' Medal — through watching a video of a past convocation ceremony.
At first, he thought that this could be the prize he had been working toward. But after digging deeper he discovered there was no way he could win it, because as an international student he wasn't even eligible.
"Being a Canadian citizen is not one of the things that I could just decide to easily fulfil unfortunately," said Brown.
Unfair award criteria
Sponsored by the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) the Past Presidents' Medal is given "to the convocating student who is a Canadian citizen or permanent resident with the highest academic standing … on the basis of the third and fourth year [GPA] combined, which must be no less than 3.5," according the the University of Alberta's website.
The medal is awarded to a student with the best grades from different engineering departments at the university. Similar medals are awarded at the University of Calgary with the same restrictions on international students.
The University of Alberta explained in a statement that "the terms of endowed awards such as this one are driven by the gift's steward. Although currently the case for this medal, residency requirements are not a common criteria for convocating awards and medals."
"The faculty's most prestigious medal (Dean's Medal in Engineering) goes to the top convocating engineering student; that medal does not have any residency requirements," said the statement.
About 20 per cent of engineering students at the University of Alberta are international students, said a spokesperson for the University.
Brown said it's unfair for an award recognizing academic achievement to cut out so many, especially if it means the medal is awarded to a student with a lower GPA than international students.
"At the end of the day, we do the same classes, we write the same exams, we spend the same amount of effort studying. It doesn't make sense when it's time to recognize academic excellence to then discriminate," said Brown.
A larger issue
Vice president of the University of Alberta's International Students' Association, Jashan Mahal, said the issue is bigger than one medal or department.
"It's the case of all faculties, whether it's engineering or arts. The amount of scholarships we [international students] have access to is [lower]," she said.
In its statement, the University of Alberta noted that every year it "awards approximately $34 million in undergraduate scholarships, awards and financial support to students."
But due to their status as temporary residents, international students often cannot access federally and provincially funded scholarships, said Mahal.
Mahal added that even when awards are not publicly funded, international students are still excluded.
Both Mahal and Brown identified the lack of scholarships especially difficult when coupled with the strain of international student tuition fees, that they said are often more than triple what domestic students pay.
Recently, the University of Alberta proposed a six per cent increase for international student tuition fees, beginning with the upcoming 2022/2023 academic year, said Mahal.
Mahal believes the lack of award inclusion is symptomatic of the general attitude toward international students at the University of Alberta.
"Whenever we ask for anything they just tell us that, according to this legislation, you are responsible for covering your own tuition and I think that is very demotivating. We don't feel supported at all," she said.
"I've been working part time, ever since my first year I've been paying my taxes. We're very much a part of this economy. So there is no way for me to just accept that justification that 'that's just the way things are.'"
While Brown has already graduated and said he is no longer interested in receiving the APEGA Past Presidents' Medal, he wants to see international students get better recognition for their work moving forward.
He has reached out to the dean of engineering about creating an award category that includes both international and domestic students. He said that so far, he has received support from domestic students who also feel that the system is currently unfair.
Mahal wants the school to take a deeper look at all its awards and open them up to international students. If that isn't possible, she would like to see more funding allocated toward international student specific bursaries and scholarships.
More than anything she wants the school to listen.
"I think they definitely need to make some effort and talk to us and see how they can incentivize and make international students feel supported and appreciated."