Indo-Canadian’s startup makes international students feel welcome on arrival
When Ganesh Neelanjanmath arrived in Canada from India as an international student in 2010 to pursue a course in project management, he had a strong feeling of loneliness as he walked out of the airport . He was "all alone" in a new country, trying to find his way through much that was foreign to him.
This year, as thousands of such students arrived at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, many haven't faced that problem because of iCent, the startup founded by Neelanjanmath. For the first time, iCent had greeters stationed at both terminals.
Neelanjanmath, who has a background in computer sciences, said there is “a little bit of an emotional connection” to this project, which was launched in 2017, but only limited to Terminal 1. Terminal 3 was added this year after he noticed that many cheaper flights, which obviously appeal to students, landed there.
For a period of two weeks, Neelanjanmath, 34, and his team of eight have been spending 12 hours, sometimes more, at Canada's premier airport, walking around holding up signs to direct incoming students to their booth offering a welcome kit to familiarise newcomers with the environment.
This initiative has 10 Canadian universities and colleges as partners, including McMaster University in Hamilton and Toronto's Sheridan College and Humber College. The iCent team, which includes members that speak Mandarin, Punjabi, Spanish and other languages, provides a digital handbook to students and offers services that appear simple but are meaningful, such as free phone calls to their families back home.
“Some of them are from small towns and have never travelled abroad before. We try to make life a little easy for them,” he said.
Nearly two-thirds of the students are from India or China. In recent years, the number coming to Canada has burgeoned, topping 125,000.
This welcome facility is based on the app iCent, developed in 2015 by Neelanjanmath, who is originally from Belgaum. It offers information on the entire process such students undergo, from “uploading their study permits, providing a pre-departure checklist, airport arrival assistance, providing a registration checklist, and collecting emergency contact information”.
From pre-departure information to being greeted on arrival to post-arrival tips, iCent is trying to simplify the lives of the students as they look to acclimatise themselves to the new environment. The package includes pointers to ethnic grocery stores near their institutions, places of worship, opening a bank account and getting a cell connection. Added to that are necessities such as accessing health insurance and licences to drive.
With the collabortion of the places of learning, the objective is to help the students “establish a relationship with them even before they arrive there, a sense of oneness”, he said.
The app has 30 Canadian institutions on board, and its success had led to an expansion, with its launch in New Zealand, tying up with Unitech Institute of Technology in Auckland. Similar moves in the US are in the offing.
The last few days have been exhausting for the iCent team as students keep streaming in ahead of the new academic year beginning on September 3. But interacting with young students helps alleviate any sense of tiredness, as Neelanjanmath said: “They are really happy. It doesn't matter whether they land at 2 am or 3 pm, they are excited. They bring a lot of energy with them.”
Many students will welcome the soft landing in Canada courtesy iCent.