Ana Sanchez knows first-hand the difference a mentorship program can make in the lives of newcomers to Canada.
More than two decades ago, Sanchez, now a Brock University Health Sciences Professor, emigrated from Honduras to Canada and received support that changed her life’s course.
Sanchez has since come full circle, volunteering her time as a mentor with the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre — the same non-profit organization that provided her invaluable guidance so many years ago. She is now on a mission to encourage other members of the Brock community to become mentors, sharing their experiences and connections with Niagara’s newest residents.
The mentorship program continues to be one of the ways in which Brock University collaborates with the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre through a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2019.
Folk Arts is currently looking for professionals in a variety of fields to be matched with newcomers. Mentors must have completed post-secondary education and have at least two years of Canadian work experience. They are expected to share information, resources and experiences and contribute a minimum of 10 hours over the course of a three-month mentorship relationship.
Like many internationally trained professionals, Sanchez was unsure how to find work in her field upon arriving in Canada. An experienced professor of parasitology, she was interested in a role in academia but wasn’t sure how to pursue it.
She was introduced to Folk Arts, whose job search workshop and mentorship teams assisted in her career search. After learning that medical microbiology and human parasitology were not developed disciplines at nearby universities, Sanchez said she was encouraged to connect with faculty from Brock’s Health Sciences Department and “tell them what’s missing in their program.”
The unconventional approach landed her a job.
Since then, Sanchez has remained connected with Folk Arts and has paid forward the kindness she received 21 years ago by mentoring dozens of immigrant professionals, first informally and now officially through the Centre’s mentorship program.
“People have helped me in the past, so why not help others,” Sanchez said. “It doesn’t cost me anything but time; but it is time well spent. It’s rewarding to see the beneficial effects over time.”
Angela Duarte (MSc ’08), one of Sanchez’s first mentees, is grateful for the mentorship program and her continued relationship with Sanchez.
“As a newcomer, sometimes you feel like you can’t do it, that it’s too much to handle,” she said. “You’re in another culture, another environment, another type of education, which is completely different than what you’re used to. I didn’t have a certification, degree or work experience, so I couldn’t easily get a job. The mentorship program was excellent because I could talk to people actually working in the field and ask questions about getting a role similar to them.”
Duarte came to Canada in 2004 with her husband and children as Colombian refugees. She met Sanchez through Folk Arts after joining a group of immigrant microbiologists visiting Brock to learn about Sanchez’s work and experiences.
Sanchez encouraged Duarte to advance her English and invited her to audit her classes so she could familiarize herself with the English pronunciations of scientific terms. A year later, she enrolled in Brock’s Master of Science in Health Sciences program and continued learning under Sanchez, who became her supervisor.
“I didn’t expect to have an ongoing relationship with my mentor,” she said. “My goal was to get information and guidance on what I could do as a microbiologist in Canada. I left Colombia to give our kids better opportunities. I didn’t think I’d end up with a master’s degree and a great job.”
Duarte graduated in 2008 and now works at Norgen Biotek Corp. as a senior manufacturing technician supervisor. Coincidentally, one of her colleagues at Norgen, Alex Chauhan, was also mentored by Sanchez.
As a PhD candidate in cancer biology, Chauhan, who emigrated from India in August 2019, was interested in exploring how research was conducted in Canada. Through Folk Arts, he reached out to researchers in his field, including Sanchez.
Chauhan was embraced by Sanchez’s research group and he participated in seminars and labs.
He credited the Folk Arts mentorship program for providing validation and setting up valuable connections between people.
“Without the mentorship program, I may not have been able to develop a career connection so quickly,” he said.
Chauhan also used the mentorship program to connect with Brock University Health Sciences Professor Jens Coorssen, who was happy to meet to discuss career opportunities in academia and industry.
“At my stage in my career, it’s not about me anymore; it’s about helping others with their career path,” Coorssen said. “It’s about giving back to the University and greater community. As a member of Brock’s community, I feel I have a responsibility to our neighbours to make our community great.”
Through the Folk Arts mentorship program, newcomers expand their local professional network; learn about Canadian workplace culture, industry trends, licensing and certification processes; develop leadership, group facilitation and confidence-building skills; and learn how to leverage their international skills and experience.
In addition to the numerous benefits for the mentee, the mentorship relationship has positive aspects for volunteer mentors, said Yusuf Al-Harazi, Mentorship Co-ordinator with Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre.
“While newcomers gain professional Canadian insight and expertise, Canadian mentors receive a greater cultural understanding and insight into the international experience of newcomers,” he said. “Cross-cultural relationships always foster greater understanding of each other while offering practical benefits to Canadian society and the Canadian workplace.
“Mentors often find this experience helps them expand their global perspective, give back to their community, guide their mentees through career questions, and learn from their mentees about different cultures and experiences,” he said.
As a 20-year mentor, Sanchez recommends people take the leap and volunteer.
“It doesn’t feel like heavy work because it’s highly satisfactory,” she said. “Reaching out and lending others a hand, offering advice and even introducing yourself to someone helps build a better society for us all. Besides, there’s much reciprocity in the process of mentoring. It’s an opportunity for mentors to keep growing both personally and professionally.”