By Ana Leal Cornejo
Featured in our fall 2019 issue
My leg nervously bounces as I open up my laptop. I have to apply for scholarships because I need money for school, I need money for rent, I need a TTC pass for next month and I’m running out of groceries. The Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) isn’t providing me with funding this year and my part-time job won’t cover the costs of living in the city while attending university.
I log onto AwardSpring, Ryerson University’s new one-stop scholarship website, which tells me I’m eligible for multiple scholarships and awards. This seems promising.
I scroll through the list and I'm surprised to find one that speaks to my Latinx identity — a renewable award for Hispanic/Latino students. The application asks me if I self-identify as Hispanic or Latino and I enthusiastically check “yes.” I realize this is the first time I’ve come across a scholarship that recognizes my Latinx identity.
A few years ago, shortly after having dropped out of my previous university program, I heard from a friend that there was someone interested in speaking to Latina students for a study about their experiences in the Canadian education system. I agreed to meet with her at the time because no one had ever asked me about my experience as Latina student before. The study and the scholarship are the only experiences I can remember where an educational institution considered my Latina identity.
They say Canada is a cultural mosaic, so why did I feel so excluded?
This 2017 study, conducted by education professor Phillipa Myers at Western University, focused on how female Latin American students persist in their academic careers despite barriers such as institutional racism, classism and financial struggles.
According to Myers, the research suggested that Latina students manage to achieve their academic goals because of a sense of recompensa: the motivation that comes from knowing there will be a payoff or reward.
Participants also pointed to the importance of family support and sacrifice. Myers says that these family bonds, also known as familialism, “prioritize family interests before individual interests. For most participants, recompensa, or the payoff of parents’ sacrifices, motivated them to do well in school.”
When you grow up outside of your native country and everything is new, “home” takes on a new meaning. For Latin Americans in Canada, familia is their home base, their ground zero in all the chaos of adjusting to a new country.
I was born in Bogota, Colombia in 1994. Despite a tumultuous political climate, I was born into a lively, tight-knit and fearless family. I grew up surrounded by my familia watching Colombian TV dramas, known as telenovelas, and eating arepas for breakfast that my mom or grandma would make. I grew up having to greet every person in the room with a kiss on the cheek while salsa music was booming in the background. Despite changing schools every year, home life remained the same.
This is what I remember from my childhood — not how poor we were or how difficult things were for my parents who worked multiple jobs. I remember the family gatherings and how much laughter there was in my house.
For others who aren’t so lucky, yearning for familia is an everyday struggle. In the case of Debborah Camargo, a recent graduate from Fanshawe College in southwestern Ontario, her family is very important, but it can be distracting while being in Canada, knowing their struggles back in Brazil.
Camargo arrived in Canada from Sao Paulo over two years ago with her husband, Alex Camargo.
“A phone call is not the same as being present. I miss them all the time. It makes it difficult to focus on my own life,” she says.
Despite graduating and finding full-time employment, Camargo is focused on receiving her permanent residency. She wants to begin the immigration process for her twin sister, Deisiane Barbosa.
“It is hard not having someone that really knows me that I can really open up to.”
Latin American Identity on Campus
During my “first try at university” — how I fondly refer to those years of my life — I remember how important it was for me to hang a Colombian flag in my dorm room. One day, a girl from my residence building came into my room and made a nasty comment about my flag.
Although I brushed it off in the moment, I began feeling a sense of “otherness” amongst my classmates.
Suddenly, I was looking around to find faces amongst the students, faculty or staff that mirrored my identity.
It was a fruitless search and I felt lonely. I couldn’t speak in Spanish to anyone and my references to shows, music and food from my childhood were unrelatable. I questioned my place at the university. Mixed with financial and mental health issues, my grades began to drop until I eventually dropped out.
Natalie Enriquez, a master’s student at the University of Toronto, says that she was the only Latin American person in her class of 64 people.
“There wasn’t a community that I inherently belonged to,” Enriquez says, ”it was also evident in the lack of scholarships and grants geared towards Latin American students.”
Enriquez recalls how isolating her undergraduate experience was. It was emotional for her to finally see someone with a similar identity in the classroom,
“I almost cried last week because, for the first time, I saw a lecture by a Latin American professor,” Enriquez says.
Returning to university as a 25-year-old mature student, I am aware that I need to look for a community in order to thrive at Ryerson. In my first month I found support and validation through OLAS, the Organization of Latin American Students, as well as group mentoring for Latinx/Hispanic or Spanish Speaking Students through the Tri-Mentoring program.
There, I see myself reflected in faces around me.
“There is a correlation between students finding a sense of belonging on campus and completing their bachelor's degree,” says Maricruz Rodriguez Rendon, a Tri-Mentoring Program representative. “Latinx students seek role models, at the institution, that look like them to believe that people like them can be in leadership positions and if the institution supports diversity on campus.”
The Tri-mentoring program has been facilitating this group for Latinx students on campus for three years. Rendon says most Latin American students are first-generation students whose parents did not obtain post-secondary education and that students may not feel their parents can relate to the demands they face every day on campus. Because of this, he says, students tend to keep to themselves when they are having difficulties at school.
As I stress about all of my bills stacking up, I get a text from my dad: “Anything you need, let me know, hija. We can sort it out juntos.”
I am overcome by the realization that it isn’t just about me — it’s about my big, loud and loving Colombian family. Despite how lonely my first experience in university seemed, I now push forward with my academic career after finding a support system within my school. This time, I also have a clear understanding that la recompensa is not just mine but my family’s as well.