A few years ago, around the time Canada was welcoming a large number of refugees, I called the office at my high school and asked if they’d be interested in visits from past ESL* graduates like myself. I started high school a month after I arrived in Canada in the snowy Spring of 1993. I wrote about my first day of school here.
I wanted to give the new students something I had so badly wanted back then: hope.
I could tell you so much about my school visits! They were humbling and rewarding. “How long did it take you to learn English?” The students asked. “When did you start thinking in English?” I told them about my first dream in English and how I woke up delighted about it. They smiled and nodded in agreement that they too would be excited when that finally happens.
I talked to the students about reading books in English, post secondary education, and how hard it was for me to speak up when I was afraid of using the wrong words. I spoke about the friends I met in school, the teachers who inspired me, and the career choices I made.
The students were really impressed when they saw a recent picture with the prime minister, taken at a State Dinner I attended. They said “aww” to the picture of my kids, and then asked questions about work life balance, and how long I waited before getting married and having kids. I spoke about the importance of economic independence.
In return, they renewed my faith in this country that is creating a welcoming environment for these diverse, brilliant young minds.
About a year afterwards on a random day, I received an email from my school. “Would your company be interested in sponsoring an award at RHS?”
The email described an existing scholarship a retired teacher had funded for over a decade. They were in need of a new sponsor and the school wondered whether the company I worked for might sponsor it for 2018?
The award was presented to a graduating ESL student with top academic standing.
I stared at the email only for a brief moment. It was probably one of the fastest, easiest decisions I ever made. This felt personal and I wanted to fund it myself. This is what they mean when they say “full circle”. Giving back a little to the school that had given me so much, and rewarding a student who is walking a path similar to mine. I replied and said I would support it for 2018, and quite possibly for every year after that. They suggested giving the award my name, but that will have to wait until I feel distinguished enough, perhaps at retirement.
Here we are, this is the second year I’m supporting it! The teachers sent me a short description of the student receiving the award, and this year it’s a young woman. They told me she is quiet, shy, and doesn’t take credit as much as she should. I can relate to that from my early high school days.
Below is the note I sent to the student this year along with the award. I kept her name out for privacy.
Hi <Student Name>,
Moving to a new country and going to a new school at age 12 is hard enough, and harder still if you have to learn it all in a new language. When I went through the ESL program at RHS at age 14, I remember missing my friends back in Sri Lanka, and I remember being afraid to speak up. I spent many years wanting to blend in, and not draw attention to myself.
That was more than 20 years ago, so I can tell you now with confidence that these challenging times shaped who I have turned out to be, and it is what is different about me that has helped me succeed.
Don’t take your accomplishments lightly — it takes a lot of courage and resilience to face the challenges that you have, and get to where you are today — graduating with top marks, winning awards, being accepted to a great program at an excellent university. Your teachers recommended you for this award, and they have done this for long enough to know an exceptional student when they see one. They believe in you, and I hope you do too!
If I can give some advice, it is this: During moments of doubt, remind yourself of the challenges you have already faced and overcome, the teachers who believe in you, your accomplishments, and the knowledge and resilience that you have built. You’re going to do great things.
Congratulations on your graduation and your accomplishments so far! Enjoy your summer, and I have a feeling I’ll hear about you when you’re at university.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes: “I’ve never met a strong person with an easy past”.
*ESL — English as a Second Language