She left her son behind to start a better life in Canada

November 11, 2015

By Paul Attfield, Globe and Mail |

When Maria Metcalfe first came to Canada in 2001 to work as a 25-year-old live-in nanny in Vancouver, she faced more than her fair share of obstacles to establish herself in a new and unfamiliar country.

A single mother, Ms. Metcalfe had to leave her two-and-a-half-year-old son with her parents in the Philippines, and armed with just a rudimentary understanding of English, she spent seven years in Canada striving to get ahead.

“It was really hard,” she says. “There’s no harder experience as a parent than to leave your baby behind, and then looking after someone else’s baby was really hard. I would cry every day and every night.”

She tried to improve her language skills at every opportunity, by listening to conversations on Vancouver’s SkyTrain or borrowing cassette tapes from the local library, and in 2008, she became a landed immigrant. She was then able to bring her son over, and started a new job as a caregiver to senior citizens.

But her lifelong dream was still to be a nurse, so last January she enrolled at Vancouver Community College to take its Practical Nursing program. As she doesn’t meet the prerequisites in English, biology and math, she is studying to bring those areas up to the required standard, beginning with taking English as a Second Language at VCC.

“They taught us what is the Canadian way in terms of education, in terms of communication with others, business, writing or speaking,” she says.

The ESL courses are just one of a number of initiatives that VCC has put in place to help immigrant students transition to a new life in Canada.

“We have a number of different workshops that we do, all the way from study skills and Canadian workplace culture, to looking for a job in Canada,” says Tanis Sawkins, associate director at VCC’s Centre for Excellence in Immigrant Integration. “[We also do] time management and wellness workshops that are aimed at newcomers.”

Ms. Sawkins also says that the English language courses at VCC go beyond mere language; they attempt to teach aspects of settlement as well. To that end, the school brings in guest speakers from organizations, such as the YMCA, the Vancouver Public Library, and experts in earthquake preparedness. It also puts on a conversation club with volunteers that meets with students so they can practise speaking more informally.

The benefits of trying to make immigrant students feel at home at the school are two-fold, she says. While immigrants gain the necessary experience and qualifications to transition to Canadian careers, their experiences also benefit Canadian-born students, who have a chance to work in multicultural groups, that mirror the makeup of workplaces in larger cities.

As a college in another multicultural city, George Brown College in Toronto is particularly conscious of catering to immigrant students. Alex Irwin, the school’s director of immigrant education, says that, as of the 2013-14 school year, 44 per cent of students were foreign born, although that figure counts both immigrant and international students.

To help set them on the right foot, the school offers a number of programs, such as its entry advising service, which provides information about the school to prospective students.

Mr. Irwin says that about 70-75 per cent of the people who access that service are immigrants. “People come into Canada and are quite often baffled by the [education] system,” he says.

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