What follows is an excerpt from the welcome speech provided by Ella Elazkany at the Welcome BBQ for incoming students and the volunteers supporting them, September 19, 2018. Ella arrived at the University of Alberta in August 2017 as a recipient of the President’s Award for Refugees and Displaced Persons. She volunteered to support an incoming student for 2018-19.
From Newcomer to Volunteer
I am new to Canada. I’ve been living here for a year and 27 days now. Before that, I lived in Lebanon as a Syrian refugee for three years and before that, I lived in Syria where I got my Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics at Damascus University.
Ever since I graduated I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree. I got acceptance from several Universities in the United States but I could not go because there was no funding. In addition to that, with the war and the hard circumstances that I have been through, continuing education abroad seemed unreachable-- until the day that I stumbled on a WUSC application, which I thought was some sort of scam, but I applied anyway. Apparently, it wasn’t.
Even though I do consider myself a strong person and I never lose hope in overcoming hardships, struggling to provide very basic survival needs while facing lack of opportunities, sometimes left me feeling like I was trapped and that there was no way out.
The reason I’m mentioning all this is to emphasize how much being accepted by WUSC, being accepted by the University of Alberta’s Master’s in Mathematical Finance and receiving the President’s Award feel like a bailout to me and that there are no words that could ever express how grateful I am.
The President’s Award is unique among other universities’ awards and scholarships. It’s basically saying that “We know you’ve been displaced and we know that you’re trying to resettle in a new country and you want to start building a new life, so we’re going to give you fewer things to worry about and help you focus on studying towards earning a degree”. Therefore, instead of just immigrating and immediately diving into a working environment, I was given the advantage of being fully funded to obtain a university degree from the University of Alberta. This will lead to better job opportunities, as well as the advantage of being able to take my time in learning how to integrate into the community on academic, professional and social levels.
There are many challenges newcomer students go through. In my experience, as a newcomer student last year, some of the challenges that I have faced are things like learning how to get around, where the closest store to buy groceries is, and what winter supplies I need to shop for… In addition, there were what I consider emotional challenges, like, “I’m so stressed out with studying and I really need to go out to do something and have fun”, or “I feel a little lonely and I just need someone to talk to”. Here is where the role of the volunteers kicked in. Simple actions can have a great impact on the person receiving them, things like “Let’s grab a cup of coffee and chat about what you’ve been up to”, or even a phone call, “Just checking in. How are you doing? Do you need anything?” These small gestures meant a lot to me. I realized that I am not alone and that there is someone there for me in case I need any help. This gave me a sense of relief and trust, which in turn led to having a good relationship with my volunteer group; I have even become close friends with one of them. The outcome of this experience motivated me to try to give the same impression to others and that is the reason why I volunteered to help newcomer students this year.