Headshot of Dr. Yolanda Palmer-Clarke
Dr. Yolanda Palmer-Clarke (PhD’15) currently works on campus as a research officer at the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit (SPHERU). (Photo: submitted)

Offering support to international graduate students

USask graduate Dr. Yolanda Palmer-Clarke (PhD’15), who explored the lived experiences of international graduate students through her award-winning doctoral dissertation, continues to be a source of encouragement


When Dr. Yolanda Palmer-Clarke (PhD’15) moved from Jamaica to Saskatoon in 2011 to study at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), she became interested in the lived experiences of international graduate students.

She hoped to draw upon her own experiences as an international graduate student to become a resource for others who were facing similar opportunities and challenges.

“One of the major challenges I had was overcoming winter, or getting used to winter, coming from a sunny place to here—and having no idea what winter meant or what it would be like,” she recalled.

Guided by her love for people and helping others, as Palmer-Clarke settled into life in Canada she made it her mission to connect with other international graduate students at USask—especially fellow Jamaicans—so she could “help them along” through the adjustment process.

“I recognized that, coming in, you’re transitioning on so many different levels and so many things are different,” she said. “It’s really a challenge figuring out the ways and the norms of the new institution.”

Today, more than a decade later, Palmer-Clarke said she aims to connect with and help all individuals, but she has a special place in her heart for immigrant groups, especially international students.

“I always encourage those I meet and may have helped to pay it forward,” she added. “We all need help at some time, and especially in a foreign land.”

Palmer-Clarke first came to USask as a master’s student after studying at the University of the West Indies, where she earned a Bachelor of Education degree, a Master of Education degree, and a diploma in public relations, advertising, and applied communication. She also engaged in studies related to translation from Spanish to English.

Palmer-Clarke then came to Saskatchewan, and after a year at USask transferred from her master’s program into a PhD program in interdisciplinary studies. As she familiarized herself with the new academic program, she continued to adapt to a new country, a new city, and a new educational system. The changes posed significant challenges for her, but Palmer-Clarke “was spurned to channel through, believing that the destination will be better than the journey.”

Palmer-Clarke decided to focus her PhD research on the lived experiences of international graduate students. Her dissertation, titled Triple learning: The journey from student to scholar, utilized in-depth and semi-structured interviews and observations to explore the daily experiences of six USask students. As Palmer-Clarke wrote in the abstract of her dissertation, “Grounded in the knowledge of the growing numbers of students studying at post-secondary institutions, I aimed to unearth and re-present the daily lives of the selected participants to shed light on the experience of being an international graduate student.”

The anecdotes and reflections shared by the student participants bordered on and were based in lingua-cultural, social, and academic adaptations, and, ultimately, transformation, Palmer-Clarke wrote. As she stated: “Participants were enthralled by the adaptive process of living in a new community. Being newcomers, these students viewed themselves fundamentally as outsiders within the community of practice. Yet their stories encapsulated change from being dependent ‘scholars to be’ to becoming independent scholars. Essentially, findings pointed to the international graduate experience being similar to advancing from student to scholar. Through participation in the academic community of practice, they were learning to become independent scholars in the university.”

USask graduate Dr. Yolanda Palmer-Clarke earned her PhD in interdisciplinary studies in 2015. (Photo: submitted)

Palmer-Clarke’s work, and resulting dissertation, was celebrated at USask; in 2015, the year that she earned her PhD, Palmer-Clarke received a University of Saskatchewan Doctoral Thesis Award from the College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.

Palmer-Clarke said conducting research on the lived experiences of international graduate students helped her to better understand her own experiences, which she chronicled in 2019 in her book When faith meets opportunity: Leaving, learning and living in a foreign land. Understanding her experiences also positioned Palmer-Clarke to be an advocate and a source of encouragement for international students entering overseas institutions. She has tutored, mentored, and helped many international students successfully through their academic careers.

Regarding her PhD research, Palmer-Clarke “found the major issue for them was the interplay between the different subcultures that they’re entering into—there’s life outside, there’s life within the university, and then there’s general life in Canada, and they’re all different.”

“They’re all nuanced and all different, and they all carry their own little language and jargons that, if you’re not careful, can cause miscommunication,” she said.

“I did find, too, some evidence of racial disparity, in that most of the students that I spoke to were from different cultural backgrounds.”

Since Palmer-Clarke completed her PhD dissertation in 2015, the number of international students has grown at USask. According to USask’s 2022/23 Academic Year Snapshot, from June 12, 2023, the number of international students rose by 277 from the previous year to 3,609—comprising nine per cent of the undergraduate student population and 35 per cent of the graduate student population. The top five countries of origin for international graduate students included Iran (19%), China (12%), India (9%), Nigeria (9%), and Bangladesh (6%).

Overall USask enrolment is also rising. As of Jan. 8, 2024, USask enrolment for the winter 2024 term increased by 2.4 per cent. This follows record enrolment in the fall 2023 term.

Palmer-Clarke said she has seen greater cultural diversity and an increase in international students on campus since she began her studies at USask more than a decade ago. She has also noticed demographic changes in the larger community off campus, which is “great to see.”

“Walking around the campus now, there is greater diversity and representation. It is encouraging and points to the changes in the university,” she said. “Diversity and representation are important elements to building a robust academic environment and positions the university to better be what the world needs.”

For Palmer-Clarke, moving to Saskatchewan and studying at USask have been positive experiences overall. While there were obstacles and challenges during her journey, Palmer-Clarke said she realized it was a process, and that she could enjoy the journey even amidst the difficulties. She continues to enjoy living in Saskatoon because her preference is to reside in a relatively small city. She is also seeing an increase in Jamaican citizens coming to USask.

“There’s quite a large number of Jamaicans now,” she said. “I think knowing there are other Jamaicans here, that there are opportunities, draw them to come as well.”

During her time as an interdisciplinary student, Palmer-Clarke said she “straddled three different disciplines” throughout her studies: education, sociology, and linguistics. She has since applied what she learned during her graduate degree to her employment on campus. A lifelong learner, Palmer-Clarke is continuing to learn and grow through her work at USask. When she first completed her PhD, for example, she was hired as a research assistant for a professor in the College of Nursing—a job that introduced her to health and health inequities. She decided to dive deeper into health research. As a language educator with an interest in literacy, Palmer-Clarke also began to explore the relationship between health literacy and health-care access.

“It kind of piqued my interest, so I started looking at that,” she said.

After her employment in the College of Nursing, Palmer-Clarke moved into the College of Medicine, where she worked with a few departments as a part-time research coordinator. At the same time, she taught English as a Second Language (ESL) courses at the University Language Centre, drawing upon her previous teaching experience in Jamaica.

Palmer-Clarke then took on a research manager position in the College of Medicine. From there, she moved into her current research officer position at the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit (SPHERU), working with USask graduate and SPHERU director Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine (PhD’94) and other researchers. As the research officer at SPHERU, Palmer-Clarke manages the unit’s day-to-day operations and research projects with competing demands and changing priorities. She also serves as a sessional lecturer on campus and aspires to become a professor.

Currently, Palmer-Clarke is working with Muhajarine on a community-driven research project related to the social and health impacts of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan. Dr. Erika Dyck (BA’98, MA’00), professor and Canada Research Chair in the history of health and social justice in the College of Arts and Science, is co-principal applicant for the two-year study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Palmer-Clarke has also worked on a recent research project to assess the impact of COVID-19 on children and youth in Saskatchewan, co-funded by Mental Health Research Canada and the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation. The study, co-led by Muhajarine and USask graduate Dr. Tamara Hinz (BA’04, MD’08), aimed to measure the frequency and severity of mental health issues among Saskatchewan’s children and youth during the pandemic, as well as their need, use, and satisfaction with mental health services.

Palmer-Clarke is pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to these impactful health-related research projects. She is also happy to have a role on campus that enables her to combine her interest in research with her love of teaching.

“Teaching is my passion. It’s what I love to do,” she said. “And so, I’ve had the opportunity to blend my teaching skills with my research skills in my current role. As a research officer, I sometimes help other researchers in terms of analyzing data and writing up reports, and sometimes graduate students who ask for advice on their own programs. I am able to blend the teaching skills and the research skills currently, which is great for me.”

Palmer-Clarke continues to be a resource for international students and encourages all students to “be open to difference” and to welcome new experiences. One of the major things Palmer-Clarke learned through her PhD research is that adjusting to life in a new country is a process, “and everyone’s process and journey is different.” Drawing from her own experiences, she now tells international students that the process, though difficult at times, “builds character, and it builds you and grows you into who you are meant to be.” She compares it to the research process.

“The research process, likewise, is a journey filled with twists and turns but is quite rewarding; when you stick to it, it is transformative,” she said.

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