The Importance of Digital Identity for International Students

International students often experience anxiety and confusion when navigating the document sharing systems used for different aspects of their study abroad journey. While many of us may know that the systems we use now for student admissions and visas are greatly improved over previous generations, a student applying for a study permit might only see the barriers and inefficiency they encounter.

There is great potential for digital systems to lower barriers for students, facilitate applications, manage approvals, and increase trust and efficiency during the application process. But as I’ve learned more about the technical and practical complexity of Digital Identity, through my engagement with stakeholders in the sector and with the Digital Identity and Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC), I’ve recognized a familiar problem: the transparency of the systems we put in place is not universal.

One International Student’s Experience

These systems may seem transparent to us, but we have to look at them through the lens of the international student experience. For students, cultural and material differences may mean that these systems actually produce more financial pitfalls and headaches than they help solve. What we intend as user-friendly and welcoming processes might actually alienate students and make them feel excluded.

For these systems to function, we often rely heavily on identity documents. But I remember a comedy sketch I heard that hilariously and painfully illustrated how cultural differences can radically alter perspectives on and experiences with identity documents. 

The sketch was by Arthur Simeon, a Canadian stand-up comic who, a few years ago, was an international student at a university where I worked. In the sketch, Arthur told his story of being pulled over by the police while in a car with two Canadian friends. He acts out a frantic search for his passport, documents, and proofs of identity. He even makes a call to his mother back in Uganda asking her to take a picture of his birth certificate with her phone and email a copy to him “A.S.A.P!” 

Meanwhile, when the officer asks his Canadian friends for their ID, they exercise their right to simply say “No”. 

Arthur’s astonishment at their relative privilege—compared to his fear and vulnerability—is both the comedy and the tragedy of the sketch. As a former international student, Arthur can’t imagine saying “no” to an authority figure. Remaining anonymous may not be a viable option. Proving identity and establishing trust are paramount.

Student Journey pictogram for ApplyProof featuring paperwork, emails, passport and study permits, and a school

Digital Identity and Trust

Many of us in North America have a strong sense of owning our identity. We may have the privilege of assuming confidence in our identity because we rarely have to prove that we are who we say we are, and when we do, it is usually routine. We may not like the inconvenience of having our identity questioned, whether we’re crossing a border and showing our passport or being pulled over and having our driver’s license verified through police databases. We have the privilege of prioritizing our privacy.

For an international student, crossing international and cultural boundaries can result in frequent challenges to their identity—many of which can have life-changing outcomes. Whether a student plans to only study abroad or if they are looking to immigrate after school, as long as they are marked by difference of visa status, race, language, or other factors, the need to demonstrate trust in their identity will remain constant. International students, more than most others, could benefit from a robust digital ecosystem that accepted and verified their identity, whether in-person or virtually. 

What is Digital Identity?

The concept of digital identity is multifaceted and can include purely virtual components (such as logins/passwords, digital credentials, documents, and data) as well as authenticated physical elements (such as a scanned passport). While physical IDs might fit in our pockets, our digital identities are much less unified and more broadly distributed. 

For students, perhaps especially international students, digital identity markers are quickly becoming the cornerstone of their experience interacting with institutions, governments, and even each other

The distributed nature of digital identity makes it complicated. The conceptual shift from an ID you can hold in your hand to a disassociated set of data points can produce something like digital vertigo. That distribution of data accounts for both heightened privacy concerns and the potential for the digital economy to make proof of identity and authenticity more efficient, and in fact more reliable, than paper-based and visual identification.

By providing increased security and trust in student documents, ApplyProof is helping shape Canada’s digital economy of the future. We’re working to surface the challenges that international students face on their journey to Canada, and we’re implementing solutions that can help remove such roadblocks in the future.

Digital Identity and International Education

This article is an introduction to a new blog series about digital identity and international education. In this series, I’ll be addressing aspects of digital identity and document verification from an international educator’s perspective. 

As I’ve worked with DIACC, I’ve come to realize that many other industries (such as banking and retail) are often ahead of the education sector in adapting to the digital economy. While digital identity is complex, it’s valuable to build an understanding of digital identity and the digital economy to help move beyond discomfort and move towards embracing helpful technological change.

In my next blog post, I’ll provide some background on how to better understand digital identity, and I’ll discuss the tensions between privacy and trust. Stay tuned!


A. Michael Allcott, PhD – Director of Partnerships

With over three decades of leadership roles in international education at US and Canadian colleges and universities, Dr. Mike Allcott is known for innovative enrollment management strategies. Throughout his career, he has been known for creative and effective responses to the rapidly changing ecosystem of internationalization. As the Director of Partnerships for ApplyProof, Dr. Mike develops partnerships enabling technological solutions for students, institutions, and education stakeholders all across Canada.