For students who have just arrived in Canada, the pressure of adapting to their new lives is often too much to bear.
The frustration of a new language, the absence of friends and family, and the stress of reuniting with a mother after years of separation by the Live-in Caregiver Program often impact a student’s success. Self-esteem issues abound, which eventually lead to failing grades, chronic absenteeism, involvement with the wrong group, or even dropping out of school.
Free Citizenship and Immigration Canada-funded programs can help. Every August, newcomer students nationwide receive the ultimate welcome to school. Students entering middle school attend one-day WIN programs (Welcome and Information for Newcomers), and teens attend three to four-day NOW (Newcomer Orientation Week) programs.
NOW Programs are organized by Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS) who partner with both the Toronto Public and Catholic school boards and a community agency. Settlement Workers act as newcomer counsellors during the school year, and over the summer, they hire and train Peer Leaders—former newcomer youth who are enthusiastic about school and Canada.
Peer Leaders lead students on a tour of the school and public library, and they explain everything from extracurricular activities, proper dress codes, and how to open a combination lock. They become role models not only during the program, but even throughout the school year.
Some Peer Leaders are even inspired to take on settlement as a career, like Richel Castaneda of the Centre for Immigrant and Community Services, who was a Peer Leader in 2009.
“Looking back, it never occurred to me that what started as a leadership opportunity would lead me to a career in settlement,” she said. “I am grateful that with the leadership and communication skills I gained as a NOW Peer Leader, I can continuously be of service to newcomer Filipinos.”
NOW participant Jannelle Francisco was shy at first, but quickly met other Filipinos through NOW. “Before this program, I felt like a loner, so I’m very thankful for the orientation that we had,” she said. “I realized that I’m not the only newcomer, and I’m not alone!”
For Thea Lizada, her school did not offer a NOW program, so she registered in the closest one to her neighbourhood. She said, “It really helped me a lot during my first day because through NOW, I got to know which person to go to when I had certain problems or when I got confused in school.”
In programs facilitated by North York Community House, digital stories are often screened. During the year, settlement workers help students create movies about a significant change in their lives.
Many students describe the hardships of family reunification, absenteeism, bullying, and more. Showing these opens a discussion about the opportunities or challenges that await students in their new Canadian lives.
Filipino students often state that their parents work so much that they don’t have time for school events or to assist with homework. Without an emphasis on educational attainment at home, students often enter the workforce at a young age, choosing fast money in low-paying jobs instead of a post-secondary education. These students often complain that their parents never understood the school system.
This is why the final day of NOW is a family-oriented affair. Parents and guardians attend an orientation by the teacher, and learn about mental health, the importance of attending Parent-Teacher Interviews, the various school and community support staff whom they can contact, and more.
Father Henry Carr Settlement Worker Amal Abou-Harga thought of one mother who was very touched by this welcome to Canada. “One of the newcomer parents was very isolated, very shy. When I told her that the session was about to wrap up, she started to cry. She said, ‘This program showed me another face to this country.’”
The NOW program finishes with a graduation ceremony to signify that students are ready to begin Canadian schooling. In front of family and new friends, students often sing and dance to showcase their culture.
Madonna CSS Settlement Worker Irma Hercules said, “The NOW program’s graduation ceremony sends a message to students: we want them to bring their culture to their new school. We want them to know that they don’t have to completely change who they are. We want them to feel truly welcome.”
For newcomer students in middle school or high school who missed these August programs, there is good news: in October and February, there are newcomer orientation programs offered in select Catholic and public schools for students in Grades 6-8 (WIN) and Grades 9-12 (NOW). Many elementary and secondary schools also have an evening to welcome newcomer families.
To learn more, families can approach the school office and contact their School Settlement Worker to find out if these terrific programs will be available.
This article was originally published in The Philippine Reporter on September 26th, 2014.