University of Regina alumna Larissa Bezo BA'96, MA'02 heads up the Canadian Bureau for International Education, our country’s most important agency for attracting international students to Canadian institutions and providing domestic students with worldwide study opportunities.

A few years ago, two graduate students—one from Malawi, the other from South Sudan—arrived in Ottawa for an orientation session en route to the University of Regina’s Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. The young scholars were beneficiaries of the African Leaders of Tomorrow scholarship program administered by the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE). They needed support in finding a place to live and getting settled in Regina.

University of Regina alumna Larissa Bezo, president and CEO of CBIE, reached out from Ottawa to her friends in Regina, asking them to meet the incoming Africans at the Regina airport and help out. Within days, an entire support network was mobilized to greet the new arrivals. “They soon had 
a home, fully set up through the generous contributions of 
the Regina community,” says Bezo. “This was a living example 
of Saskatchewan community warmth.”

The post-script: both young men thrived as master’s of public 
policy scholars and have since returned to Africa to take on leadership roles in their communities. “The friendships and people-to-people ties between Saskatchewan and Africa remain,” says Bezo.

Such personal intervention may not be part of her job description, but it’s in keeping with the Ottawa-based non-profit’s role of facilitating both inbound and outbound student movements between Canada and overseas countries.

Advocating for Canadian and international student mobility has become an especially urgent challenge for Bezo and CBIE in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic and closed international borders, which threaten to undo some of the organization’s valuable work in promoting Canada as a learning destination.

CBIE’s mandate is “promoting Canada’s global engagement through education,” says Bezo. The organization’s 150 members comprise colleges, universities, school boards, educational organizations, government agencies and businesses.

This mission has many different dimensions. Since 1966, CBIE has engaged in capacity-building partnerships in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and the Americas. Its areas of expertise include scholarship management, governance, education institutional design and management, and education sector capacity building. Since 2005, CBIE has organized over 80 training courses or study tours across Canada for international delegations of students, faculty, school administrators and foreign government officials.

Advocating for Canadian and international student mobility has become an especially urgent challenge for Bezo and CBIE in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic and closed international borders, which threaten to undo some of the organization’s valuable work in promoting Canada as a learning destination.

 Larissa Bezo, president and CEO of CBIE in her Ottawa office.
Larissa Bezo, president and CEO of CBIE in her Ottawa office.

In the 2010s, Canada had rolled out the welcome mat for international students. Ottawa recognized that they were an increasingly important part of the economy, contributing $22 billion to Canada’s gross domestic product in 2018 through tuition, accommodation and other spending. “As a sector, it’s more significant in economic terms than even softwood lumber,” says Bezo.

Moreover, international students, far from curbing domestic student enrolment, actually increase it. According to a 2017 study by Kevin Shih in the Journal of Public Economics, the higher tuition paid by international students subsidizes additional spaces for domestic students.

With China and India leading the way as source countries, Canada appeared set to attract a million international students over the next decade simply by maintaining its share of that growing market.

From 2010 to 2019, international students in Canada increased by 185 per cent. The total number of international students at all levels of study was nearly 700,000—75 per cent of whom were post-secondary students. (Canada had already surpassed its target of attracting 450,000 international students by 2022.)

With China and India leading the way as source countries, Canada appeared set to attract a million international students over the next decade simply by maintaining its share of that growing market.

In fact, Canada figured to boost its market share, as competing nations such as the U.S. and the U.K. were becoming less 
attractive destinations. Enrolment of new international students in American universities was already in decline, owing to stricter conditions imposed by the Trump administration. And international student enrolment plateaued in Britain after its government imposed new rules limiting a student’s right to work after graduation.

In contrast, Canadian immigration policy was very accepting. Rule changes by both the Harper and Trudeau governments meant international students could work part-time while studying, automatically qualify for a work permit of up to three years upon graduating, and receive preferential status if they apply to become permanent residents. As a result, 40 per cent of all economic-class immigrants accepted by Canada were international students who graduated and wished to stay in this country. Some 60 per cent of all international students surveyed in Canada said they planned to seek permanent resident (PR) status.

The decline in international students, especially new ones, has been a major blow to the universities’ revenues.

Then COVID-19 struck, upending international student enrolment and playing havoc with the planning of education administrators. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada data, the number of study visas issued in the first six months of 2020 was down 25 per cent from the same period in pre-COVID-19 2019. This probably understates the overall impact. Only those students with study permits issued by March 18 were eligible to travel to Canada. “We’ve been advocating for a greater opening up beyond that mid-March timeline,” says Bezo. “That’s going to be one of the significant variables in international student mobility going forward.”

The decline in international students, especially new ones, has been a major blow to the universities’ revenues. “Our university has seen its international student population drop from one-third to one-quarter of overall enrolment,” says Robert Summerby-Murray, chair of CBIE’s Board of Directors and president of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. “Still, the COVID-19 impact has not been as large as we thought it would be because of the ability to keep pressure on the federal government,” he says.

International student enrolment at the University of Regina has experienced a similar decline. Since the onset of the pandemic, UR International, the unit that coordinates international study, has been doing everything in its power to engage both enrolled and prospective international students during COVID-19.

"We are taking measures to ensure that our international students feel a sense of belonging and connection to the University of Regina," says Haroon Chaudhry, acting associate vice-president (International) UR International.

Haroon Chaudhry, acting associate vice-president (International) UR International
Haroon Chaudhry, acting associate vice-president (International) UR International

Among those measures are continual and ongoing communication with students, individual and group advising sessions held over Zoom at unique hours for different time zones, a virtual international peer advisor program, and virtual social engagement activities.

“We are continuously monitoring changes occurring due to COVID-19,” says Chaudhry. “We are constantly adapting our services to the ever-changing needs of international students both inside and outside of Canada. International students’ mental well-being, physical well-being and academic success has always been, and continues to be, the number one priority of UR International.”

Despite the pandemic, international students continue to rate Canada very favourably as a learning destination, according to recent surveys.

The movement to online course delivery has meant that many international students continue to study for Canadian university degrees, albeit from their home countries. Federal immigration policy has been altered, under lobbying by CBIE, to enable those students to apply for a study permit and count the time toward their post-graduate work permit. “Those are changes we have worked so hard on with the federal government to put in place,” says Summerby-Murray.

However, even a short-term shift to online learning by international students has its drawbacks. Canada loses their presence as renters and consumers. Furthermore, international students expressing or studying controversial ideas online are more vulnerable to monitoring and repression by their homeland authorities. “Online learning is wonderful and creates the possibility of a greater pathway into Canada, but with it comes some pretty significant risks as well,” says Bezo.

Despite the pandemic, international students continue to rate Canada very favourably as a learning destination, according to recent surveys. “The intent is still there,” says Bezo. “The issue becomes much more one of execution.” Do they begin their Canadian studies online? Do they defer their studies for a year and then come when it’s safe to do so? “How long a waiting game is this going to be?” she asks. “We’re not likely to recover—in six months—the loss of growth as a learning destination. That’s probably going to take the next three to five years.”

One such academic was Howard Leeson, a former provincial deputy minister who co-supervised her master’s program and is still an adjunct professor. “When you have the privilege of taking classes with influential and thoughtful leaders like that, it certainly has an impact,” says Bezo.

Over the years, I have taught and supervised a large number of students, but Larissa stood out for me in a couple of ways.

Bezo’s mission is helping to reclaim that depleted cohort. Born in Toronto to a Ukrainian-Canadian family, Bezo (née Lozowchuk) grew up in Regina and is fluent in English, French, Ukrainian and Russian. She completed a bachelor’s and master’s in political science at the U of R, while working in the Saskatchewan civil service. She recalls the U of R’s politics department as having a faculty rich in public sector experience and adept at reconciling academic theory with bureaucratic practice.

University of Regina Politics and International Studies professor emeritus, Howard Leeson. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)
University of Regina Politics and International Studies professor emeritus, Howard Leeson. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

Leeson’s admiration for Bezo is equally flattering. “Over the years, I have taught and supervised a large number of students, but Larissa stood out for me in a couple of ways,” he says. “First, she was extremely dedicated and determined. It is difficult enough to do a program without having to work as well. Throughout, she was bright, attentive and always eager to participate. Second, and perhaps I recognize myself in her career, she married the practical and the theoretical as well as anyone that I supervised. I am sure this was because of her work in the public sector, but also because of an intuitive grasp of issues and how to manage them. It was a treat to work with her. ”

Bezo’s initiation into the Saskatchewan civil service was a summer student job at Executive Council. “I gained an understanding there of how decisions are made,” she says. She then worked as a researcher for the deputy minister to the Premier’s office and later in the cabinet planning unit.

She devoted 18 months as senior advisor to the federal Royal Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada. The commission, headed by Roy Romanow, recommended sweeping changes to ensure the long-term sustainability of the health care system. “I contributed to the public consultations and helped to shape the report. The Commission was led by Mr. Romanow and the rest of the team played in a highly collaborative and supportive capacity, myself included,” Bezo recalls.

Michel Amar, who was communications director of the commission, was impressed by Bezo’s poise and tact. “To have someone of her ability to listen carefully, mediate issues and find common ground among all those very smart people with very big egos was absolutely remarkable.”

I had always wanted to make a difference, not just at 
home in Canada, but being able to contribute to my own country’s role globally.

Bezo then returned to the provincial civil service as deputy clerk. At 29, she was the youngest person ever to hold that position. “My role was making sure the process of decision-making and implementation was working, that the priorities 
of the day were being addressed,” she says.

She eventually left the civil service to pursue her long-time interest in international development, doing 
consulting assignments for the Canadian government, the World Bank and the International Center for Policy Studies 
in Ukraine (she had earlier done a youth internship with the Kyiv think tank.) Later, she returned to spend seven 
years in Ukraine, during which World Bank projects also took her to the South Caucasus region: Georgia, Azerbaijan 
and Armenia.

“I had always wanted to make a difference, not just at 
home in Canada, but being able to contribute to my own country’s role globally,” she says. In the early 1990s, Bezo led a Canadian technical assistance project to professionalize Ukraine’s civil service—a challenge in a country trying to shake off the vestiges of the authoritarian Soviet regime. 
“What that meant was trying to create an actual separation between administrative and political functions and to build 
up the leadership capacity at the senior bureaucratic level.”

At 29, Bezo was the youngest person ever to serve as deputy clerk in Saskatchewan civil service hisory.
At 29, Bezo was the youngest person ever to serve as deputy clerk in Saskatchewan civil service hisory.

Her consulting work brought her increasingly into the 
orbit of CBIE (which, over the past 24 years, has delivered 18 projects in Ukraine). When Bezo decided it was time to put down roots, she returned to Canada, going in-house at CBIE 
as director of international development programs.

Soon she was leading a five-year CBIE project to improve the accessibility of Ukraine’s emerging legal aid services. Bezo launched the project in 2014 by enlisting local lawyers to aid demonstrators arrested during the Maidan Revolution that ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Michel Amar, who was then also working for CBIE, says, “Larissa was the right person at the right time to be working with those folks. 
It was an incredible legacy that she left that system.”

Bezo continues to travel widely for CBIE and has visited 27 countries on the organization’s behalf. “It’s made for a very rich life experience,” she says.

The legal aid service has since helped over 2 million people in Ukraine, says Bezo.

She did four missions over 12 months to Vietnam, advising its Ministry of Home Affairs on how to professionalize the state’s civil service leadership. She drew on her experience in Ukraine, where many of the senior Vietnamese bureaucrats had done their graduate studies. She was promoted to CBIE vice-president in 2016 and interim president and CEO in 2018, then was confirmed in both posts in early 2019.

The CBIE board has identified four priorities: increasing the profile of the organization, cost containment and revenue generation, an expanded advocacy role—making connections in Ottawa—and bringing greater value to the membership, says Robert Summerby-Murray. “Larissa has really moved each of those forward quite dramatically in 18 months’ time.”

Bezo continues to travel widely for CBIE and has visited 27 countries on the organization’s behalf. “It’s made for a very rich life experience,” she says.

Bezo (back row, third from right) and her CBIE colleagues 
from Kyiv, Ukraine during 
a retreat to build the country’s institution of legal aid. The photo was taken on International 
Vyshyvanka Day (Ukrainian International Embroidery Day). (Photo courtesy of Larissa Bezo)
Bezo (back row, third from right) and her CBIE colleagues from Kyiv, Ukraine during 
a retreat to build the country’s institution of legal aid. The photo was taken on International Vyshyvanka Day (Ukrainian International Embroidery Day). (Photo courtesy of Larissa Bezo)

She lives in Ottawa with her husband of 13 years (also 
from Saskatchewan), her nine-year-old daughter and her seven-year-old son. “My family and I enjoy the beautiful trails and green spaces. We also enjoy venturing into neighbouring communities in the Ottawa Valley to explore local sites, tastes and sounds.”

Saskatchewan is often in her thoughts. She misses her extended family, and the skies, vast open fields and expanses of land. “You just breathe a bit deeper and there’s a skip in your step,” she says. She also misses the province’s “friendly and generous people”, and the sense of community and volunteerism. She will tap into that ethos again to welcome eager students from faraway lands.

About the Author

Sheldon Gordon is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Originally from Winnipeg, he has worked as a parliamentary reporter for the Toronto Star, an editorial writer for The Globe and Mail, and a producer with CBC-TV. He holds a master’s in International Affairs from Carleton University.

Photos by Gregory Abraszko and courtesy of Larissa Bezo.