Building students, confidence and a sense of belonging

Clement Chan Executive Director and owner of Columbia College the Hamilton based International School home to 1,800 foreign students from 74 countries.

Clement Chan Executive Director and owner of Columbia College the Hamilton based International School home to 1,800 foreign students from 74 countries.


For 35 years, Columbia International College has been educating students from around the globe. The boarding school continues to grow, having a profound impact on the businesses and broader community that surrounds it.

Lisa Grace Marr

The Hamilton Spectator

On a recent weekend, Clement Chan, executive director and owner of the largest international boarding school in Canada, opened his email to find a message from parents of a student upset because their daughter’s artwork had disappeared.

The Columbia International College student intended to use it as part of her university application. But it turns out the artwork had been placed in a plastic bag on a garbage can.

So Chan initiated a dumpster dive.

It’s all in a day’s work for the owner of the boarding school that has a robust enrolment of about 1,800 students in Grades 7 to 12 from 74 countries from Singapore to St. Lucia, from the Czech Republic to Sierra Leone.

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The school has been around for 35 years and is still in growth mode.

Columbia International College, in addition to delivering what it calls a “total care” approach to education, is a vital part of Hamilton’s economic engine.

Principal Ron Rambarran has worked at the college for 34 years.

The college directly employees about 300 people in positions ranging from teaching and tutoring to housekeeping and food service to administration and registered nurses (at its own medical clinic).

On top of that, Rambarran estimates there are an additional 300 spinoff jobs — from bubble tea shops to Internet cafés to computer stores or travel agencies.

The school did not provide full financial statements, but indicated boarding and tuition for each student averages around $35,000 — suggesting an annual budget at the college of about $5.9 million.

Between 2011 to 2014, the college spent more than $5.5 million on various construction projects, according to city building permit figures, underlining the significance of its investment in the local economy.

Nationally, a 2012 study for the foreign affairs department found the business of educating international students (including post-secondary who stayed more than six months) is one of Canada’s unsung success stories, estimating that in 2010 international students spent more than $7.7 billion in tuition and created more than 81,000 jobs.

“Overall, the total amount that international students spend in Canada ($8 billion) is greater than our export of unwrought aluminum ($6 billion) and even greater than our export of helicopters, airplanes and spacecraft ($6.9 billion) to all other countries,” a report written by Roslyn Kunin and Associates observed.

As Rambarran points out, unlike Canadian students, international students bring new dollars into the country without domestic government grants or loans.

Like any other private enterprise, Columbia International College started as a response to a demand in the market.

Chan was working as a research assistant in the political science department at McMaster University when his sister asked him to help find a high school for a friend’s son so he could prepare to go to university in North America.

Chan toured some schools in Toronto he described as having “limited facilities” — so he opened a school himself.

He rented classroom space in an unused building from the Hamilton public school board, and began with nine students and almost as many staff.

He knew well what it was like for these students — he’d arrived from Hong Kong at the Toronto airport at the age of 17 just a few years before.

“At that time, there was only one space at university for every 10,000 students in Hong Kong so many, many students went abroad for education,” he said.

“I arrived with two suitcases and had to find my way from Toronto airport to Hamilton to study.

“It was hard. We could only call home once a year on Chinese New Year’s. It was $3 a minute and we could talk for three minutes.”

So the first priority for Chan was to assure parents that Columbia International College would take “total care” of their kids while preparing them adequately for university.

It’s a responsibility he does not take lightly.

“The student who comes here — they are not just coming here to learn English and math and physics, they are coming here to grow with us,” said Chan. “Aside from five to six hours of learning, there are 18 hours they are with us.

“Total care is not a slogan, it’s a walk and a mission for all of us.”

Within a year, the school had 100 students and soon requests came from beyond Hong Kong and China, where his family had contacts.

He travelled to places like Kazakhstan, which for a while had a program that offered full scholarships and grants to students to study petroleum engineering and English in order to support the burgeoning oil industry there.

The catch?

The parents of students receiving those scholarships had to put up their homes as equity against their student’s progress. A fail could mean the family would lose their home.

“I’m sure we were the first school in Canada to have high school students from Kazakhstan and you know those students were very, very successful.”

It’s a story that reflects the value placed by parents and by international governments on a Canadian education, both secondary and post-secondary.

Columbia International College graduates about 1,000 students a year and about 80 per cent graduate as Ontario Scholars with an A average. The average age is 15 to 19 but some are as young as 12 or 13 enrolled in Grade 7.

They live throughout the city usually in CIC’s residences. There are six throughout the lower city and on the mountain.

The students have a distinct impact on the city, helping support Asian-focused businesses clustered around the residences.

Later this year, the federal government will relax the rules for international students on study permits here allowing them to work up to 20 hours a week.

Rambarran said that will provide a way for businesses and international students to forge links — an opportunity for both.

He argues that Hamilton is missing out on potential business partners and business opportunities internationally by not engaging them — many either stay in Canada as professionals or move back to their home countries where they will have ties to businesses there.

“Only one or two (former students) have stayed in Hamilton. I’ve talked to our politicians about this — why don’t our international students see Hamilton as a place to live and raise their families? We don’t create a welcoming environment. I would like to see a mindset change. It is very critical to get more local business in to talk to (students) to forge links.”

Timber Yuen is one of those former students who did end up staying in Canada.

For the past three years, he has been working at McMaster as an assistant professor in the Bachelor of Technology program just down the street from Columbia International College.

He arrived at CIC, while it was still on the mountain, in 1985 when he was 17 for two years of study.

“I intended to return to Hong Kong but I was doing so well in my studies in my fourth year (of university) I started to think I might stay,” he said.

“When I was at Columbia, it was a lot smaller but I was on student council so I really polished my leadership and English skills. It is striking the impact it had on me, I think.”

Chan said the past three years have been spent refining the college’s other educational programs to support the emotional, social and physical development of each student.

He and his staff have also implemented a new training program to improve that “total care” philosophy, setting aside one day a month for all staff to do strategic planning and brainstorming ways to improve student life and academics.

“If we just had to worry about academics, we’ve spent 20 years figuring that out and universities tell us we do a good job,” said Rambarran.

“We know, though, that 50 per cent of success is based on academics, the other 50 per cent is other aspects.”

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