There are over 18,000 international students from more than 100 countries currently studying in Manitoba, ranging from primary school kids to post-graduate university researchers. According to the Government of Manitoba, their presence collectively contributed $400 million to the provincial economy in 2018, supporting thousands of jobs.
One of those students is Victoria Nwabuisi, a 4th year student majoring in Asian Studies at the University of Manitoba. This is her story.
As the International Students’ Representative at the University of Manitoba, Victoria uses her experiences to empower and encourage other international students through their own journeys.
I came to know about Winnipeg when I was still in Grade 12. We had representatives from the University of Manitoba visit my high school. In Nigeria, when you are in Grade 12 you have agents from a lot of schools from the US, UK, and Canada come tell you about their university to convince you to apply there. At the time I didn’t pay too much attention, but then I took a gap year and during that time I heard about the U of M once again, so that’s how I decided to come here.
I would say that one of my best memories here started the day I arrived in Winnipeg. I had gone to a phone booth at the airport to phone a taxi to come get me, and then I met this lady, a senior from the US, who asked me where the phone booth was. We ended up going to the same hotel! Every morning we would have breakfast or brunch together, and we became very close.
I learned that she was actually Canadian and that when she was my age she had moved to the States to study, so she could really relate to me coming here. She had come back to visit her mother – she’s in her seventies and her mother is like, over 100 years-old.
It was the beginning of May and I remember I was supposed to move into a friend’s house for a little bit before moving into campus residence once summer term started, but that friend cancelled with no notice. All of a sudden I was stranded with no family in Winnipeg and spending so much money on a hotel. My plan was literally to sleep outside a Walmart because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know anyone here and I couldn’t keep paying over $100 per night in the hotel, because I needed to save money to survive through school too.
Sensing my urgency, my new friend asked me one morning if I was going to keep staying in the hotel. That’s when I told her everything that happened. She said her niece worked with international students at the University of Winnipeg, and maybe she would know somebody. Long story short, I ended up staying with her niece for the three days before moving into residence.
I had never experienced that kind of welcoming before – someone just being so open and willing to let you come into their home. Like, in Nigeria, people don’t do that. You don’t just allow a stranger into your home, no matter how nice you are. I felt extremely moved, and it really redefined how I perceived the society here.
The Faculty of Engineering building at the University of Manitoba. International students comprise nearly one fifth of the U of M student population – some 6,000 students.
I remember before coming here, people back home would say: don’t trust white people, only be friends with Nigerians. But then the very first week I was here – all the Nigerians that I knew let me down! It was so heartwarming to have people I didn’t even know treat me so well. They took me around Winnipeg, they took me to school on the first day. They helped me move in to residence. Even to this day I sometimes travel down into the States again to see the lady that helped me out. I’m honestly like their grandchild. It’s an ongoing memory.
It was also when I got here that I realized what it means to be a minority. In your own country, you never really think about the fact that when you go somewhere, everybody looks and acts and talks like you. So coming here I remember my first few months I went through so many cycles of culture shock. The reality and understanding that people hold of other faraway cultures is very different from what I thought it would be.
As a minority, even very small cultural differences can instantly make you feel like an outsider. It was very shocking to me. It was when I got here when I really got to understand what it means to be a minority. It took me awhile to accept that myself, but once I did, it made me feel far more comfortable relating to other people.
I guess that’s one thing about being an international student or newcomer here. You realize just how much you need to depend on other people and it’s easy to begin to feel like you are a burden. You rely on other people to help you out a lot, but you aren’t in the position to offer much help to them in return. So what happens is that you just end up trying to do everything yourself. Even today, I have some friends at church that have become like my local family, and they recall days where they would see me walking to church in minus 30 degree weather they would say like, What was she doing?! Why didn’t she call us for a ride?
I still do encounter racism on a regular basis, but I’m more mature now about handling it. When I got here, I would get so hurt about the way people would talk around me, or shut down my ideas, or just the way they would treat me as someone that looked and acted differently, and I would take it personally. I think now, when I experience racism, I don’t take it personally – it’s just ignorance. My getting angry or getting upset doesn’t help the situation.
I’ve found it’s important to understand that racism is ignorance is coming from another person’s perspective, and that it’s my responsibility to help them if they’re willing to see things another way through trying to understand a little bit of my lived reality. But if they’re not open to that then, that’s just how it is. I’m getting better at just avoiding situations or people that I know will make me feel uncomfortable in that way. I don’t feel like it’s my job to go out of my way to educate people that don’t want to learn.
I feel that being here has also changed how I feel about family. Maybe here I realize just how much people here value each other. Even if someone has a brother or sister living in another province, you can tell that they feel their sibling is so far away. Meanwhile, I’m thinking that, if that’s the case, they are just a three hour flight away, no big deal. But you can really tell that people want to be close to their families – Thanksgiving, Christmas, people just want to spend all those holidays together with their family. I appreciate all those small things, and that’s the way I would want my family to be like in the future.
That’s not the case in Nigeria. Well, maybe in some parts, but that’s not generally the rule of thumb. In Nigeria, maybe people are just too ambitious so they spread themselves out all over the world, and then it’s hard for people to come back together. It’s taken for granted that everyone will end up spread out and that’s just the way it is.
I haven’t seen my family since I moved here in 2015. That’s been hard on me mentally and psychologically, but has also made me mature a lot faster. We are constantly communicating by email and social media, but it’s not the same as seeing them. When I talk about Winnipeg to my family I say how even our refrigerators don’t get this cold – it’s really hard to conceptualize for them. And a lot has changed: my sister moved away to the Ukraine to go to school, my brother is going to be graduating high school soon, and a lot is changing. We are all spreading out – we’re all over the world that way. Sometimes it’s very hard to maintain the feeling of being connected as one family unit.
Looking back, if I had to give my old self-advice, I would say: number one, save money. But also take it one day at a time. And mostly, be open-minded – be very, very open-minded. Because that’s how you expand your understanding of people and of culture, and it really makes a positive difference in how you see it.
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