Shifting Perspectives: The Pursuit of Education
There is a dire need in our society, particularly with new immigrant-families with children who are entering (or already enrolled in) post-secondary education, to learn the skills and utilize available resources to navigate through the education system to realize their goals – whether they be personal or professional. In this piece, I wish discuss how I feel the structure and style of post-secondary education in Canada are different than what most families from South Asia or Middle East are accustomed to in their native countries. Well-defined and targeted programming and resources are needed from established and professional members of our communities to assist newcomers in adjusting and achieving their goals and aspirations.
The traditional model in South-Asian culture measures education based on “objective” measures and outcomes such as grades in final exams, national-level entry exams, and rankings among peers. In Canada and North America in general, the approach to education is a holistic one: grades do matter, but they are only part of the equation.
For example, to graduate from high school, students need a certain number of volunteer hours. To gain admission into top-level undergraduate and professional programs, students need to show aptitude for leadership, communication, and goodwill. A lot of parents – my parents especially had this issue – have a hard time grasping this concept; it takes time for them to understand how spending time coaching a youth soccer team will help their son or daughter get into medical or law school. The growth of the student as a person from all aspects is valued higher than grades or academic accolades by itself.
Rote memorization can work in high school, however, students are pushed towards building a deeper understanding of the subject matter in university and college. Grades are also influenced by behaviour of a student in the classroom – is the student sitting at the back of the class? Do they ask questions? Do they visit the professor during office hours to build rapport? All these things play a substantial role in a student’s success. It is important to shed light on these nuances so parents and children are on the same page and avoid major pitfalls when expectations are not met with realities.
Looking ahead towards professional careers, many South-Asian and Middle Eastern students aspire to become either engineers or doctors. There are a lot of misconceptions and issues that blindside families into emotional and social distress. When my elder brother decided to go through the undergraduate engineering program at University of Toronto, our family was not prepared for an onslaught of all-nighters, missed family commitments, and mental exhaustion that followed. Engineering programs not only push students academically, but also professionally into business arenas. Students are constantly required to network (a term most students know too well), attend social events, and maintain an almost ruthless professional edge over others. There is no room to be “nice” or “considerate” for others because everyone wants to secure a job in an already saturated job-market. Many of my brother’s peers had to move to different provinces as they were hired by non-engineering firms into unrelated jobs. Work ethic, dedication, and perseverance became crucial qualities.
Medicine is another profession many parents dreams of for their children because of the financial stability and prestige it offers. Gaining an admission into a medical program in Canada compared to the process “back home” is drastically different. Admission is no longer just given to the “250 students with the highest grade” or the highest bidder. Of course, the academic competitiveness is through the roof these years. This year, the average GPA admitted to the University of Toronto medical program was 3.96. Equally, if not more important, however, are factors such as extra-curricular activities, involvement in communities at local and international levels, commitment, and ingenuity. An entire book’s chapter can be written about the nuances of getting into a Canadian medical school. The idea here is to recognize that grades and academic success are not the only key to getting into a medical program — it is only one piece of the puzzle.
The purpose of this article is not to deter people away from education but rather to provide a primer about the complexities of the education system. Families face a radical shift in the culture they experience in North American societies after immigration and it is up to us as established and educated communities, to pull our resources together to inform and assist each other in climbing the ladder of success.
I am heavily involved in student mentorship with regards to transitioning into undergraduate programs and applying for professional programs such as medicine. Hence from my personal experience, I believe that parents that have lived in these communities should provide moral and social support to newcomer parents. Prejudices based on socioeconomic status and perceived children’s academic performance need to be eradicated because they stunt the growth of the entire community. This piece is simple a call for us to band together, pool our resources and build structured programs to assist one another into success in a new society. It is an exciting time for our community and we should take full advantage of it.
Moving forward, I believe there are a few things we need to do — both individually and as a community:
- As individuals, there needs to be a sense of urgency and desperation towards achieving our goals. Complacency is a slow-killing poison.
- People in situations applying for professional programs or careers should actively seek out help, mentors and resources. There is a plethora of information and untapped resources that are waiting to be discovered.
- As communities, it is crucial to evolve from how we think about education. It is not a benchmark or a numerical ranking for our children. It is a process. It takes time and everyone has their own path to follow.
- Communities should start initiatives and program to pool together resources and make them readily available for newcomers and people in need. There is a lot of potential in our community that goes unnoticed too often.