International student says graduating college was better than a dream come true

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

One of six graduates from the first cohort of international students at the Rainy River District Campus in Fort Frances sheds light on the experience of immigrating to a new country, and shares that being able to graduate college was better than a dream come true.

Originally established in Thunder Bay, Confederation College initiated its first concentrated effort to bring international students to the regional campuses in 2018. The initiative began with a cohort of around 20 students from India, Jamaica, Vietnam, and the Philippines who would receive hands-on education through placements in healthcare.

“Only six of us made it,” said Marilou Amarille, 32, a cheerful and soft-spoken woman from the Philippines who explained that she was one of six graduates from the first “batch” of international students, and who said that a huge part of her success was due to the support from staff and instructors at Confederation College.

She suspects that many of her classmates were hesitant to return school after the COVID-19 lockdown.

Amarille graduated from the Practical Nursing program at the Rainy River District Campus in Fort Frances and currently works full time at the COVID Assessment Center. As a registered practical nurse, she also recently started picking up shifts in community nursing. “Just to keep my skills up to date,” she said.

In 2015, Amarille immigrated to Canada with her husband and one-year old son, first settling in Toronto until her mother-in-law, an employee at Rainycrest Long Term Care in Fort Frances told her about the opportunities in northwestern Ontario. “She said it’s a nice place to start a family.”

In 2017, they moved to Fort Frances, one year before Confederation College’s pilot international program reached three of its regional campuses.

Amarille laughed when recalling that to her surprise, the college offered free breakfast to students, and also free lunches during exam week. She explained that back in the Philippines it was normal to go to school on an empty stomach.

“They said it’s essential for students to have a full stomach in order for them to absorb the lessons,” Amarille said. “You don’t have to worry about anything. You have their full support.”

Her classes ran Monday to Friday. On days when she needed to go to class in-person, Amarille dropped her son off at daycare. “But if it’s an online class, I want to stay home and I spend my time with my son. I want to be part of his childhood.”

Balancing full-time studies and full-time motherhood, while working part-time at Dairy Queen to support the family, is not an easy feat. But for Amarille, the whole experience is better than a dream come true. In the Philippines, especially for females without familial support, attending college was out of the question.

“Growing up was really hard for me because I’m an abandoned child,” Amarille said, explaining that she moved often, staying with different relatives. “I never met my dad. I met my mom when I was 14. So when I was in the Philippines, I couldn’t even dream about going to college. It’s like, you don’t have the right to dream about that.”

“I have to work to be able to get into [high] school because the tuition there it’s not free. You have to pay tuition even from elementary. You have to buy your own books, your school stuff and everything that’s for yourself. As early as elementary, I’m helping teachers do schoolwork or gardening at the school so they will pay my tuition.”

Amarille added that being female and older at 32 makes it more difficult to go to college due to societal expectations for women to focus on household duties. “You have to be at a certain age when you go to college. Like if you’re older, no one’s supporting you emotionally,” she said.

“I’m just supporting myself. I like learning, I love to go to school. It’s just that in the Philippines, I don’t have someone who can support me with my studies. Especially if you’re a girl, they say, ‘just go get married, change diapers,’ or ‘stay in the kitchen.’”

“So it makes me want to prove to myself that I can be who I want to be.”

The decision to pursue Practical Nursing came in two parts. First, Amarille learned that Practical Nursing offering her more opportunities for advancement compared to other programs. Second, she knew she wanted to be able to help her loved ones if something happened to their health.

Amarille recalled when her family first immigrated to Canada and her son got sick, she had no idea what to do nor anyone to talk to.

“When I get here in Canada, I don’t know anything. I don’t know how healthcare works. I’m just new. So when we were in Toronto, my son was sick. He was really sick for many days already and we went to emergency. And it took four hours in the emergency room waiting area,” she said.

“And then when we saw the nurse, the nurses just gave us a Tylenol and sent us home. I’m like, ‘Is that it? I’m so worried.’ That’s what really pushed me to study nursing, so I wouldn’t panic if my son just had a diarrhea or a simple fever. And I have so many relatives in the Philippines— families, friends—that died because of not knowing really what to do with their health.”

She explained that in the Philippines, many people learned how to treat illnesses from their neighbours rather than trained professionals. “So eeven if [the treatment] is causing you more problems, you don’t know that, because you’re just relying on what your neighbors were saying,” she said.

When working in the hospitals as a nurse, Amarille said there were multiple learning curves that her colleagues and supervisors didn’t quite understand at first. Many people in the Philippines heated water on a stove to make coffee, so Amarille stood out compared to others when she struggled to figure out technology like a coffee machine. “People think that it’s common sense, that you’re supposed to know, but like, I never used this thing.”

Still, she feels that she has the “best job ever” and will gladly jump in to fill the need. Due to staffing shortages, many nurses have been required to take on extra responsibilities.

“It’s hard for me to say if this is the worst working condition, because I’ve been through a lot. So everything that that I have right now, I’m always grateful. Even if I’m busy at work, I’m still grateful,” she said.

“I heard about it from my coworkers that they’re not supposed to do this and do that. But I’m just kind of the type of person that if we’re short staffed, okay, then I’ll do it. Like, we’ll just help each other.”

“I don’t really like complaining. Why complain? We’re healthy. We have a fulltime job. We have food, we’re not starving. We’re not in the middle of a war. There’s nothing to complain about for me—for myself.”

The cultural differences between Canada and the Philippines permeated her every encounter. On a smaller scale, Amarille first noticed how different things were around the dinner table. The vegetables were “huge,” she said, and for many meals, rice was not a staple ingredient.

On the other hand, differences in communication styles were harder to adjust to. Amarille said that “staring” into people eyes in conversation is considered rude back in the Philippines, espeically if the person you’re speaking with is an older adult, whereas in Canada, she was informed that avoiding eye contact is considered rude or implies feelings of guilt or shame.

“But now I’m adapted,” she said, adding that there are a few things she’s still learning.

When new international students arrive in the area, Amarille is usually the first one to welcome them, introducing them to others with similar backgrounds and offering to provide help where needed.

“For me, transportation is just hard for us because it’s summer all year round in the Philippines and then in December it is cold and you have to walk 50 minutes or an hour to go to where you have to go. And we don’t want to take Uber because it’s very expensive, and you know, I feel bad for these students. That’s why if I have time, I always tell them, ‘Text me. I’m gonna give you a ride.’”

“I don’t mind really because I know how it feels. I’ve been there and done that. And it’s hard. When I wasn’t driving, before when I was a student, there were so many times when I hoped someone would stop and ask me, ‘Hey, do you want a ride?’ It’s just cold, and I think that’s what’s making it hard for international students.”

“And the support is very important. So I’m glad that last school year, the college emailed me and said, ‘Hey, there’s some Filipino international students that just came,” Amarille said, adding that she met the new students that same day and introduced them to the Filipino community.

Marilou Amarille has come through the Confederation College International Student initiative, to become a nurse in Fort Frances. The program has given her a bright future in Canada for herself and her family. – Submitted photo

“I said [to my friends], ‘We have another international student. So we set up a welcome dinner. And then I told them, ‘Invite those Vietnamese students too!’ They were really shy at first. I told them, ‘It’s okay, we’re all Asians, and we have rice, so just come!’ They were very happy about that.”

Over the holidays, Amarille likes to inform new international students about opportunities such as free Christmas meals at the Flint House. She said her family usually celebrates Lunar New Year, but if they are in town for Christmas, they like to share meals and stories with friends.

“I just keep telling them, ‘You have doubts, it’s too scary. But hey, we’re here. We’re here. If you want to know anything, just ask me. I’m here.’”

In 2023, Confederation College officially launches its international education program its three regional campuses. Amarille said that she will write a testimony to help recruit new students, and that she is looking forward meeting new faces. She said she is “really thankful” that the community has grown more inclusive and understanding to different cultures, giving people sense of belonging in a country far from home.