I’d never be where I am today without the kindness of strangers
This First Person article is written by Gideon Christian, who lives in Calgary. For more information about First Person stories.
Two weeks into my studies, I stopped by the graduate admission office at the University of Ottawa to check on the status of my funding application.
The funding was critical. I told the university when I applied that I couldn’t study without financial support. The admin assistant looked at me from her desk with sympathy as she told me I was turned down.
Stunned, I choked back the tears.
And that’s when I realized my Canadian studies were going to be much, much more difficult than I imagined.
I grew up in a low-income family in northern Nigeria. My dad ran a small business and my mum was an elementary school teacher. That meant I didn’t have any political connections to leverage and only top-notch grades could get me into university.
But I did it, studied law and was called to the bar. Still, I wanted more. I wanted to be a university professor and, because I lacked political connections, I believed I needed the cachet of a foreign degree to get me there.
That’s why I applied for the master’s of law program at the University of Ottawa. I made it clear in my application that I would not be able to study without funding. So in 2006, when I got my admission letter, which stated the funding decision is pending, I was optimistic.
I bought my plane ticket, found a place to stay and even started classes. Then I got the heartbreaking news.
Without funding, my savings vanished. I could barely afford food. I turned to the student federation food bank for breakfast cereal, canned soup and apples, and started volunteering there to give back. By the fourth month, I could no longer pay for my one-room basement unit. I was weeks away from being homeless.
Then one Sunday morning, as I attended my regular religious service, I saw a familiar face leaving the building. Struggling to remember how I knew him, I yelled his name anyway.
He was a high school mate from Nigeria. We hadn’t seen each other in 16 years but after introducing me to his young family, they offered me a room in their house for four months.
I felt so grateful for their kindness. But despite their help, my dwindling finances took a toll on me, and I felt my sense of self-worth slipping away. I once thought I was a brilliant student, but poverty caused me to doubt myself, even though I continued to excel in my studies in Canada. I became reluctant to even comment in class.
Still, I didn’t give up because that would have meant giving up my dream.
After two semesters at university, I qualified for a work permit. A lack of “Canadian experience” meant I couldn’t get a job as a legal assistant with local law firms, so I began working for $10/hour as a cleaner in a downtown hotel.
While I balanced working and studying, I struggled to get help from the university. I sent emails to my program director pleading for a research assistantship position. I never got a response. So I showed up at his office uninvited. He scowled, but sent me to a professor who finally gave me the chance I needed — a 30-hour paid research assistantship and what turned out to be a life-long mentorship.
Prof. Amir Attaran was generous with this time. He saw my potential, gave great feedback and helped restore my sense of self-worth. My life began to change dramatically.
I finished my master’s degree and got an internship with a Canadian crown corporation. Then, with Prof. Attaran’s support and encouragement, I started a PhD in law and secured $135,000 in external grants even after the university admission committee initially turned me down.
Eventually, I worked as a lawyer with the Department of Justice and today, I have my dream job, working as a law professor at the University of Calgary and helping to attract more bright scholars of African descent to Canada through a new charity, the African Scholars Initiative.
Looking back, I’d say my immigrant journey was an incredibly difficult experience. It taught me how crushing poverty can be psychologically and I try to watch for that in other international students. But it also taught me resiliency and appreciation for the generosity of strangers who showed up at exactly the right time. I’d never be where I am today without them.
Dr. Gideon Christian is professor of artificial intelligence and law at the University of Calgary. He is also the president of African Scholars Initiative (ASI-Canada), a Canadian charity that seeks to attract bright future scholars of African descent to pursue graduate education in Canada.