Counsellor’s Corner: When They Come from Afar

The relationship between ESL students and Guidance

Nhi, a 17-year-old student, started at my high school in January 2017. Born in Vietnam, Nhi came to Canada in the dead of winter, on her own, to a country far from home. She came to live with her aunt and uncle, who would act as her guardians. As an international student, Nhi remembers being welcomed to this country by -20 degree weather and lots of snow and ice.  The shock of being away from her family and home – coupled by the cold, frigidity, opposite of the tropical climate she was raised in – was completely overwhelming for her. 

Then came her visit to our school board’s Assessment Centre, where she was interviewed and assessed in Math and English, to determine her academic level. This was also a very foreign experience to her. By the time Nhi made it to our school’s intake meeting, I had before me a very nervous and shy 14-year-old girl who could barely speak English. She was about to begin her Grade 9 year with us, in a school of 1800 students. 

Through lots of broken English (and with the help of her uncle who acted as her translator) I was able to work with Nhi to develop a timetable that she was happy with. To start her day, Nhi attended our ESL class. I was hopeful that our ESL teacher could work her magic and connect Nhi with other students who were new to the country and had similar worries to her own.

Nhi in her Grade 12 year.
Photo by: Katie McInnes

The plan worked perfectly. In Nhi’s first day of class in Canada, she made a friend in that ESL class – a girl from the Philippines. They were able to share their stories and talk about their experience here in Canada. Nhi would confide in me later that it was easier for her to make friends in her ESL class compared to her other classes because everyone was new to the country and shared similar experiences and stories of their transition to Canada and the Ontario education system. We would also talk a lot about her life in Vietnam and some of the challenges she experienced there that she didn’t have over here. For example, in Vietnam, Nhi’s parents were quite strict, not allowing her to go out much.  According to Nhi, she led a sheltered life back home. However, in Canada, she had a lot more freedom and independence.

As Guidance Counsellors, we service students – all students. We help students from different cultural backgrounds, learning abilities, family structures, and socio-economic situations. As such, we naturally alter how we interact with all these students based on their backgrounds and needs. The various strategies we use, and dialogues we engage in, can make a significant difference in how a student feels, especially for those who are new to the country and our education system. We need to be sensitive to these differences and value our students’ journey and experiences.  This could not be more true for our students who, while going through adolescence (which in and of itself is challenging!) are uprooted and moved from their home country to Canada to start anew. Our ESL (English as a Second Language)/ELL (English Language Learners) students are some of the most vulnerable, hopeful, scared, excited, intelligent, and driven students we will encounter in our offices. 

 At our school, we have a designated guidance counsellor who takes care of all the ESL students. Our reason for this is that we can then connect our ESL students to one another all while working closely with our ESL teacher who is our partner in this endeavour. This coordinated approach ensures that the new student’s needs are being met.  We help by finding tutors or friends, changing courses or lunches, connecting them with extra-curricular activities and community supports.

As Guidance Counsellors, we need to be mindful and check in with our ESL students often. Once I got Nhi settled into her classes, I would call her down often to chat with her and help transition her to a “Canadian” high school experience. To establish a relationship, I asked her about her journey and how she and her parents decided on Canada and why she made her way to us half way through Grade 9. Like so many of our other newcomer students, Nhi explained to me that her parents wanted her to have a better education compared to what was available to her in her home country. Being only 14 years of age, Nhi expressed quite clearly, that she was scared because she knew little English. She had a basic understanding of the language but could barely speak it when she first arrived. Nhi had the same worries as our Canadian born teenagers, such as the fear of not knowing how to make friends; how to ask questions in class if she didn’t understand a concept being taught, and confusion over her post-secondary destination. Ultimately, although our ESL students have additional layers of worries (such as adapting and learning about the language, the school system, the post-secondary requirements to get into college/university), I have found that they are some of my most resilient and accomplished students. They are driven to succeed in many aspects of their high school experience, from making connections with peers and teachers to getting into a variety of post-secondary pathways. Nhi, who is now in Grade 12, has been part of our school’s Eco Club, Chaplaincy, Sound and Light, Neuroscience, and Math Club, and is looking forward to attending university next September to study Bio-Chem. This is a girl who barely spoke a word of English when she first arrived to Canada.

The role of the Guidance department as a player in our ESL students’ success and support team cannot be understated. All of our students, especially ones new to the country need to have a safe, trusting place to stop by for a chat, ask questions, express worries and fears, research community agencies and resources. However, as much as we do to help, support and guide our ESL students and newcomers through this educational system, what we gain in return is so much more. The rich tapestry of culture, insight, experience that our newcomers bring to our schools, our classrooms, our communities usually teaches us more than the things we teach them. The stories of their journeys, their resilient spirit and fortitude, their drive and hard work, is inspiring to say the least. I am grateful for all these students who come from away and choose us! And for that, I am thankful.

Anna Macri has spent most of her 20 years in education in Guidance and Career Education. She recently took on the position of Department Head of Guidance at St. Marcellinus Secondary School, in Mississauga, Ontario.

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