The journey of youth immigrants through the education system in Canada is similar to a grueling marathon. Most people that are new to the experience have a hard time at first. Everyone is bound to encounter a few surprises along the way; but there is also an indescribable and rewarding feeling at key points in the race.
I recently finished my degree at Western University and I am lucky enough to start my career in my desired field of accounting. To boot, I am on track to continue my education as I pursue my accounting designation. I’m not at the finish line yet, but I’m close enough to the end to have a full opinion of the realities that youth immigrants encounter in Canada.
Having migrated to Canada from the Philippines when I was eleven, I am fortunate as high school dropout rates from my native country hover over 50 percent according to the 2015 data from the National Department of Education. Yikes. This isn’t to say that the school system here is perfect, but at least the dropout rate is much much lower.
I’ll be the first to admit that I stumbled at the starting line. I arrived in Canada with little to no knowledge of the English language, common sayings and gestures were foreign to me and the mannerisms of my classmates were very strange. There was some help in the system, but I had a very tough start. However, would you believe it if I told you that I would go on to win the Language Arts award among my graduating class two years after my arrival? And I was fortunate enough to come out of university with a Certificate in Professional Communications with distinction.
Part of my involvement at Western University provided me with an amazing opportunity to speak in front of 1,500 people about civic engagement. (Photo by: Tianlin Zhu)
I believe that the start of my success was highly correlated with breaking through language barriers and getting involved. I struggled at first, but every single lesson I learned in communicating empowered me. I’m not alone. The Peel Children and Youth Initiative released the “Voices” report, which is a study of youth in the Region of Peel (the area where I grew up.) This study had a sample size of 2,187 secondary students, with insights from an additional 149 youth through focus groups, back in 2013. The organization found that 11 percent of individuals like me with an East Asian background struggled with the same issue of language as a barrier when they wanted to become engaged. From my experience, I feel that number may be higher, but I’m glad that students identified an issue that had not become apparent to me until much later on in my youth. Additionally, the research also showed that schools and organizations can do a much better job of letting young people know how to get involved.
Youth immigrants to Canada are some of the most vulnerable members of the educational system because of the drastic changes in their lives and the unfamiliarity of their new environment. Stepping foot in my first English as a Second Language class was intimidating. My initial extracurricular meeting was nerve-wracking. People that were kind enough to be my new friends formed my informal English conversation circle. The latest blockbusters served as a tool to help me learn about Canadian youth culture. Even with the kindness of others, it was all very overwhelming.
A common factor within those examples is that I was initially exposed to all of them while I was at school. We can’t boast about a great educational system without having the right resources available to new students immigrating here. Ultimately, the onus is on the new student to get involved and pave their way to success. However, it certainly makes it easier if they had a welcoming and nurturing environment that sets them up for success. I had a positive experience because I had a good support system. Others are in more complicated situations and it might not be as easy, especially if financial problems are in the picture. Educators, bureaucrats and youth leaders need to keep in mind the struggles of youth immigrants in shaping education policy.
As the borders of our world dissolve, the barriers that stop people from being able to create a better future must also break. In order for Ontario and Canada to remain competitive in the global landscape, new Canadians entering the educational system need a supportive environment so they can maximize their potential in their new home. Though many of us are all just students today, every single one of us has the potential be a leader of tomorrow.
Author: Marchael Cunanan
Author Bio: City-builder, Accountant, UWO Alumni
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Cover Photo Source: Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press