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photo courtesy of mohammad khosravani, background illustration by istock

Why International Students Are Packing Their Bags

Mohammad Khosravani moved to Canada to kick-start a career in AI. Now, after six months of fruitless job hunting, he’s eyeing the U.S.
BY Mohammad Khosravani

June 10, 2024

Growing up in Tehran in the 2010s, I was fascinated by computers from a young age. Like many kids from my generation, I spent countless hours playing video games. I was endlessly curious about the technologies shaping our world. 

When the time came to choose my path for university, I decided to pursue a degree in computer engineering. It seemed like a natural decision. However, by the time I graduated from university in 2022, I’d lost interest in traditional software development. The field was static, offering little opportunity for growth or innovation. I knew that if I stayed in software development, I would be stuck in a repetitive cycle of developing apps and websites, day in and day out.

Instead, I gravitated toward artificial intelligence. The AI sector was evolving rapidly, offering new things to learn every day. I saw a lot of headlines about how natural language processing was going to transform the world, and I wanted to work in that space. I learned everything I could to boost my technical knowledge, studying videos on YouTube about machine learning, neural networks and natural language understanding. My goal was to get a master’s in AI and then start a career working in natural language processing and potentially developing my own models. 

But Iran’s AI infrastructure and investment was lagging far behind many other countries in the world, and AI jobs in Iran paid far less than in the West. At the same time Iran was (and still is) going through a lot of political instability and social unrest, specifically around the government’s authoritarianism and the country’s gender inequality. (That social unrest exploded into nationwide protests soon after I left Iran, sparked by the tragedy of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in 2022 after being arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s mandatory hijab laws). Iran also has political tensions with the U.S.A. and Israel, and I was tired of living with the constant fear of a major war potentially breaking out. I wanted a safer, more stable life elsewhere. I had to leave my home country.

I’d learned English as a kid from extracurricular courses and watching Hollywood movies, so I searched for opportunities in English-speaking countries like Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. The U.S. was my first choice: it had the biggest AI sector with the most opportunities. But very few Iranian students received U.S. student visas; my odds of getting approved were low. I’d also have to do a long interview with a consular officer, who’d conduct an extensive background check. That sounded more like an interrogation than an interview, which turned me off.

That’s when I began considering Canada. Although it had a smaller AI sector than the U.S., I had several friends who’d already moved there, and they spoke highly of life there. They told me that Canada was a peaceful place, and I wouldn’t have to worry about political problems like I did in Iran. I applied to five Canadian universities, and eventually connected with the supervisor of the AI master’s program at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He admired the breadth of my technical knowledge and made me an incredible offer: in partnership with the Vector Institute, the Toronto-based AI research hub, Lakehead would provide a scholarship covering my entire tuition. I immediately accepted. 

In September of 2022, I arrived in Canada to start my two-year program. I hadn’t travelled much outside Iran, and I was eager to experience life in another part of the world. Rent prices were much cheaper in Thunder Bay than in a bigger city like Toronto. My scholarship also covered some of my living expenses, which helped immensely. I rented a room for $650 a month in a house that I shared with two roommates.

As I settled into my new life, I had no issues handling my course workload. My biggest challenge was transitioning from life in the massive, bustling city of Tehran to Thunder Bay, where the streets in my neighbourhood were almost always empty. The colder it got, the fewer people I saw. It was a huge culture shock. I was surrounded by beautiful nature, like the famous rock formation that gives Sleeping Giant Provincial Park its name, but there wasn’t much to do, especially in the winter when it started snowing a lot. In Tehran, it’s typical to socialize in coffee shops or restaurants most nights of the week, but that wasn’t possible in Thunder Bay because of how expensive it is to go out in Canada. I wanted to focus on my studies, so I wasn’t working and had to manage my expenses carefully. It was tough to stay in my room every day and restrict myself from even going on trips. At times, I felt depressed and isolated. But I was confident the sacrifices would be worth it once I got a job and started a life in Canada. Gradually, the slower pace of life in Thunder Bay grew on me. The summer after I finished my first year, I splurged on a trip to Toronto to visit some friends. To my surprise, I found the city was far too busy and loud for me. I even missed Thunder Bay.

By late 2023, I was almost finished my program and preparing to defend my thesis in the spring. I’d been told Canada’s job market was very competitive, so I got a head start searching for work. I applied to positions on LinkedIn and Glassdoor, sending out two to three applications daily. But I was only averaging about two interviews per month, and none of them led to job offers. I asked a mentor at the Vector Institute for help refining my resumé. He told me that I shouldn’t have trouble finding a job, considering my experience in natural language processing, which I was using for text summarizations of data like social media posts. But he also warned me that in Canada, positions in the AI sector are usually filled through referrals and connections—even if they’re posted on job sites. In many instances, he said, employers probably weren’t even looking at applications like mine. 

After nearly six months of searching with no success, I think he was right. I’ve completed my program and defended my thesis, which would normally be a cause for celebration. But I feel demoralized and discouraged, because I’m not sure of my next step. I understand that networking is crucial, but it’s particularly challenging for me as an immigrant residing in an isolated community like Thunder Bay. I’m competing with people who have established networks in tech hubs like Toronto.

Many immigrant students in my department, including a few from Iran, are also struggling to find jobs in their field. To cover their costs, some have taken software jobs outside their area of specialization. Others are even working as Uber drivers. But once you factor in the cost of things like gas and car maintenance, you’d likely only make a little more than minimum wage. I’ve considered moving to Toronto or Vancouver to help my job search, but rent would be even more expensive there and the pressure on me to find work would be much higher. 

For now, I have secured a short-term contract developing a virtual assistant for a local startup in Thunder Bay. This contract will help cover my costs for now, but I’m running out of time. At this rate, I’ll only be able to afford to pay my rent and buy groceries for another two or three months, so the pressure to find a job is weighing heavily on me. I could get a minimum wage job in retail, but life is so expensive in Canada, even in Thunder Bay, that I would be living paycheque to paycheque. I don’t want to live that way. 

All this uncertainty is leading me to consider opportunities in the U.S., including academic positions. A paper I wrote has been published by an AI-focused organization, and I’m travelling to Mexico City for a major conference later this month. The conference is attended by many U.S.-based professors and AI startups, and I hope I’ll connect with one of them as an entryway to a career in the States. 

I’m so frustrated and confused. I was offered a scholarship to get an education here, but now that I’m at the critical stage of launching my career, I can’t give back. I feel like I’ve been cut adrift.

I feel a lot of gratitude—and even loyalty—toward Canada and Lakehead University for providing me with an excellent education. However, if I can’t secure a job, how can I support myself? I would like to settle down in Canada and eventually get married. Without a stable career, I can’t begin that journey.