Everyone will tell you “Dawson is such a multicultural school”. Most students here have various cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Some have lived abroad, and some have even studied outside Quebec before coming to Dawson. These students chose to come to Dawson because of programs only offered here or because of the college’s reputation. I decided to interview a few Dawson students who had studied abroad and an Education Advisor at the Academic Skills Center to see how different are the school systems around the world.
Shams Alibrahim, a 21-year-old Literature student, was born in Hama, Syria, and she had studied there until her first year of university. “I started the second year but didn’t finish it,” she told me in an empty third floor classroom. She remembered having a lot of exams, classes that only lasted 45 minutes, and a recess between every two classes, but no lockers. “What I didn’t like about going to school in Syria was that the teachers were not as demanding as those here,” she said. “They wouldn’t punish you if you didn’t do homework or assignments.” Besides that, she liked everything about going to school there.
She encouraged her parents to leave Syria because the Civil War made everything unstable since 2011. “We wanted to come here specifically because I have an aunt that lives in Laval. She explained the situation to us beforehand while I did a lot of research about Quebec’s history and language,” she explained. On December 31st, 2015, Shams and her two brothers and parents were part of the 25,000 Syrian refugees that were welcomed in Canada between November 4th, 2015 and February 29th, 2016, and now have permanent residence.
“What I like about Dawson is that you can make your own schedule and teachers are much more open-minded. You can call them by their first names here,” she points out. “But what I don’t like is that the books are really expensive . They were much cheaper or free in Syria. Some teachers will force you to buy them but you’ll almost never use them.” She was in the Social Science program at first, but after realizing how unfamiliar she was with the terms used there, she decided to transfer to Literature, which was “exactly what [she] had studied in Syria”.
“If I could change anything about going to school in Syria, I would change the uniforms in high school and make the university professors allow us to bring the books to the exam instead of trying to make us memorize entire quotes by heart,” she said.
Paola Beatriz Lopez Sauri, a 17-year-old Literature student, was born in City Monterrey, Mexico, and attended school there until fourth grade. She recalled how her school was “private and Catholic with nuns walking around”. “There was even a chapel,” she told me while we were sitting inside the fourth floor Reflections classroom.
Paola really appreciated the fact that her school was bilingual. They had one hour of English everyday, with their Math and History classes also being taught in English. “What I didn’t like was that the teachers didn’t have remediation techniques or office hours,” she said, adding that the school system was “really sexist”. Girls were forced to wear skirts or dresses all the time – even during gym class, with shorts underneath – except during winter. They would be told to smile more if they were looking “too serious.” She hated the fact that people focused too much on Catholicism, instead of letting others learn or practice any religion they wanted.
Paola and her family had to leave Mexico after the election of a new local mayor. Their town was becoming increasingly unsafe. She confessed that she had felt angry and helpless at the time because City Monterrey was the only thing that she had ever known. She hadn’t known much about Canada. she only expected it to be safer, the people to be nicer, and everyone to speak English. Her father’s company got him a new position in Montreal so they arrived here on August 2nd, 2010.
“I was in a ‘classe d’accueil’ with 3rd to 5th graders mixed together,” she explained. “The diversity was overwhelming. We had all been Catholic Mexican students in my elementary school who had learned about Mexico’s history much more than other countries.”
Paola told me that she likes the fact that Dawson offers many classes, various subjects, lots of programs, and “activities that are here to promote good stuff”. She also mentioned that the teachers here are very hands-on when it comes to helping students.
If she could change anything about going to school in Mexico, she would lower the passing grade from 70% to 60% and change the uniforms. “Girls should be allowed to wear shorts or pants,” Paola stated. If she could change anything about going to school here in Quebec, she would make sure that it’s easier for students to pass or succeed in gym classes – since “not everyone has the same level of strength to make the perfect serve in badminton” – and enrich the English classes in high school because, in her eyes, English teachers don’t make students work hard enough.
Shelly Gel, an 18-year-old Cinema and Communications student has spent time in many places. She was born in Jerusalem, and moved to Canada when she was 7 years old. Because her stepfather was a diplomat, she “was forced to move to Armenia” five years later, where she went to school from 6th to 7th grade. She explained that there were no elementary schools or high schools in Armenia; “it all went from grade 1 to grade 11 in the same school building.” Because of her stepfather’s job and social status, she was sent to a private Russian school under the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, attended by children of ambassadors, diplomats, bank owners, and soldiers (among others). “A bunch of black Mercedes-Benzs would be parked outside the school to take the students wherever they wanted to go, and they usually had a lot of pocket money and wore designer clothes,” she said as we were sitting in the Alexis-Nihon food court. “The richer you were, the cooler you were over there.”
Shelly had learned to fluently read and write in Russian. She also had biology, history, algebra and geometry, geography, physics, cooking, and self-defense classes in 6th grade. What she didn’t like about going to a Russian school in Armenia was how teachers abused their authority: students were meant to stand when their teacher entered the classroom – and only sit down when allowed –, could fail a class if they weren’t dressed or behaved to the teacher’s liking, and could even be humiliated by the teacher in front of everyone. “I once got screamed at by my teacher for drinking water,” she recalled.
Shelly moved back here after her mother and stepfather had broken up because of the war situation between Israel and Palestine – going back to Jerusalem was no option – and also because her mother saw Quebec as a safe and friendly place to live and build a future.
When Shelly’s mother and stepfather had broken up, she moved to Canada. She likes the fact that students go to CEGEP between high school and university because “it really, really gives you a chance to find what your true passions are and what you want your future to be like,” as she put it. However, she wished that teachers wouldn’t force students to learn what they don’t need or want to, and give them the chance to choose their own educational path.
Omer Othman, a 19-year-old Arts and Culture student, was born in Montreal but moved to Dubai at the age of seven, where he went to school from 2nd to 5th grade. After politely requesting that I sit on his right side because he is deaf and has a cochlear implant in his right ear, he told me that he was struggling with Arabic, a language that he had only learned at home before and now had to study in every day. “I liked the weather there and the fact that we were studying under the British system – since I was in a private school,” he said. “What I didn’t like was that the genders were separated; there was an actual physical gate between the boys and girls’ sections that was lifted at lunchtime.”
In Omer’s eyes, the difference was that there is a lot of open-mindedness in Quebec, while it wasn’t well seen that he was left-handed in a Muslim country like the United Arab Emirates because of the belief that using your left hand is associated with the devil. His parents had wanted to move to Dubai for him and his brother to have a better education but came back to Montreal in 2011 for better job opportunities.
Omer chose to come to Dawson because his brother told him that there is a very good accessibility program for him – he wouldn’t be able to hear without the cochlear implant in his right ear – but he doesn’t find the accessibility program very effective.
“I love the CEGEP system here because it gives us more time to think about university but I really don’t like the cultural separation between those who speak French and those who speak English,” he said.
If he could change anything about going to school in Dubai, he would remove the gender separation since “it makes no sense”. If he could change anything about going to school in Quebec, he would remove Bill 101 – which states that students whose parents did not go to English schools must go to French elementary and high schools.
“Many of our students, whether they are international students, immigrants, or refugees, are coming to the Academic Skills Center for help, but their numbers are not overwhelming us. We are ready for them.” said Education Advisor Lori-Ann Gilman while we were sitting in her office. She explained that they were a team of six employees in the Academic Skills Center who mostly saw students one-on-one during 30-minute appointments or daily drop-in hours and often tailored their methods to the students’ specific needs. “What these students often struggle with is essay writing, reading comprehension, and documentation (MLA or APA format). Language, culture, and thought are all interlinked, so when they’re asked to write an essay in English, it requires more than just grammar and vocabulary,” she added. But students who had gone to elementary and high schools in Quebec can also have these problems; teachers don’t spend enough time preparing them for college, according to Gilman. Employees at the Academic Skills Center often focus on reading and writing by looking at a graded paper and going over the teacher’s comments, highlighting the students’ strengths and weaknesses, and giving them grammar exercises. “Our main goal is to reach students who may be in need and know what we are – we already have a website, handouts (online and in our office), and drop-in hours every day,” Gilman concluded.
Students who had gone to school abroad may not have chosen to leave their countries, but they chose to come to Dawson. Every school has its strengths and weaknesses, no matter where it is in the world.