A community collaboration recently allowed Brock students to connect their classroom learning to the lived experiences of newcomers to Canada.
At a hybrid meeting held late last term, students in Livianna Tossutti’s class on Global Migration: Canada in a Comparative Perspective had the chance to hear from newcomers studying English as a Second Language (ESL) at the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre. The event provided an opportunity for ESL students to share insight into their motivations for emigrating and their experiences arriving in Canada and the Niagara region.
The ESL students represented 19 countries of origin and spoke more than a dozen languages. By sharing their stories, they helped Brock students understand the human side of issues they had explored in class, including the push and pull forces that drive international migration, the experiences of temporary and permanent migrants, and Canada’s multicultural approach to integrating newcomers. The level 5/6 ESL students also had the opportunity to practise speaking English and meet new members of the local community.
“Immigration is a complex policy domain that is the subject of myths and misunderstandings that are propagated by the media and others who don’t quite understand the area or understand immigrants and their motivations,” says Tossutti, an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science. “I think the opportunity for students to ask questions directly to newcomers and to hear the newcomers talk about their experiences helps combat some of the preconceptions that people may have had about immigrants and immigration before they entered the course.”
Tossutti has taught the class four times and worked closely with staff at Folk Arts to create this experience each time, whether in person or virtually. She says the benefits to students are immediately clear after each session.
“Readings on migration can be heavily laden with statistical data or dense legal language that only tell one part of the story,” says Tossutti. “Getting the first-hand narratives from people who have been through the experience is an integral part of the learning experience for my students. Some of the theories and concepts discussed in the course begin to make sense after this session.”
Ramneet Sahota, a fourth-year Political Science major from Brampton, says the meeting helped shape her understanding of the course material, particularly around integration.
“Throughout the course, we have learned about integration and what steps host countries can take to ensure there is meaningful integration for newcomers in society,” she says. “Having this experience and directly speaking to newcomers made me understand the real-life implications of the integration process and how important meaningful integration and community resources can be.”
Sahota says she was struck by the openness of the ESL students and by their outlook on the future.
“My biggest takeaway from this experience was the optimism shown by the students and how willing they were to engage in conversation with our class,” she says. “It was really inspiring to see them engage with our class while they were still in the process of learning English, as this did not prevent them from answering all our questions and offering meaningful insight on their experiences.”
Taher Matus (BA ’21), Folk Arts Mentorship Co-ordinator and Communications Chair, says it was great to see ESL students sharing their stories.
“Having studied sociology myself, it was really a cool event to put together the terminology with faces and real-life experiences, using all the theories the students learn to try to understand different stories,” says the Brock alumnus. “I think it helped Brock students really see the barriers that all newcomers face, and maybe, moving forward, they can use their knowledge to help newcomers in society wherever they see them.”
LINC/ESL instructor and Brock Applied Linguistics graduate Lisa Smith (MA ’17) has been working with ESL students in different capacities for nearly a decade.
“It was a very positive experience,” she says of the meeting. “It gave my ESL students an opportunity to use their language skills and boost their confidence. I also felt that they were very engaged, and even those who are sometimes more reluctant to speak were inspired to share their stories.”
Smith, who previously taught high school, prepared her students by sharing narratives from other newcomers and helping each student define personal boundaries and comfort levels. Brock students also submitted their questions in advance so the ESL students had time to consider their responses.
Josefina Pérez (IELT ’98), Community Connections Program Co-ordinator at Folk Arts, says the event characterized what she calls the “two-way street of integration.”
“It’s not only about newcomers arriving and coming here to settle, it’s also about the community welcoming them,” she says. “I think we managed to create a space where the two sides could interact in a safe way and there was genuine interest on both parts.”
Pérez also says working with Tossutti and building Folk Arts’ relationship with her over the years has helped foster a sense of shared purpose.
“It was not our first time working with Livianna, so that foundation of trust was already established,” she says. “I always remember Livianna’s research in welcoming communities — that’s what she teaches and researches, and it’s critical to have such allies in the community.”
Pérez, who learned English at Brock when she first came to Niagara, says the conversation had some truly memorable moments.
“There was the opportunity for our students to ask the Brock students about how they saw newcomers and what were they prepared to do in welcoming new Canadians, and that was very moving,” she says. “We hope we can co-ordinate more activities like this one.”
Sahota’s strong impressions from the encounter led her to take up an internship at the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre that started in January to prepare her for a future career in immigration law.
“I decided it was important for me to work in the community before I enter the legal field, and working in a centre that provides resources for newcomers seemed like the perfect match for me,” she says. “Also, being a first-generation Canadian, I have seen the gap that exists between newcomers and those who are already integrated into Canadian society. Having this experience, I wanted to work in a placement that will allow me to somehow bridge this gap, even if it is on a small scale.”
Indeed, helping students engage with the local community is a key part of Tossutti’s overall teaching philosophy.
“These encounters are a window to the global diversity of backgrounds and lived experiences in Niagara,” she says. “After graduation, our students will assume leadership positions in Niagara and beyond, so I am hoping they will apply their enhanced understanding of diversity to their chosen professions.”