Campus Life

A family of support

Only once did Priscilla Patel look over her shoulder and wonder if she'd done the right thing. It was then that she relied upon her father's reassurance to settle her fears.

Now, one semester later, Patel still looks to her father for guidance but fear has given way to excitement, and trepidation has been replaced by a confidence that helps support an entire family.

"Priscilla has really grown up," her mother Malti says. "I see a lot of difference in her since coming down here, she has totally matured."

The Patel family members have all come a long way. A year ago the entire family was in its home country of Malaysia, Priscilla set to graduate from high school, excited about a future she hoped would lead her to the United States and a dream job with animation studio Pixar.

That's when Trish Jackson of the University of Lethbridge's International Centre for Students happened upon Malti at a Study in Canada event.

"When we met Miss Trish, everything changed," Malti says. "We found that this university was what we were looking for, it had a lot to offer her."

Jackson, an international recruitment officer, extolled the virtues of the University and the burgeoning new media program being offered in the Faculty of Fine Arts. Little did she know that she was recruiting Malti as much as she was wooing Priscilla, because there was no way the Patels were sending Priscilla to Lethbridge on her own.

"It's not very often we find a student who has a parent and siblings who are relocating with them, so this was a little bit of a special situation for us," says Jackson.

Along with Priscilla and Malti came her three brothers and sisters, 12-year old Natasha, nine-year old Nashania and seven-year old Darren. Only Ashok, the father, stayed behind.

Suddenly, Jackson was more of a resource than she'd ever been before.

"I think my biggest role was trying to answer questions before they actually arrived," Jackson says.

"Beyond student support it's really difficult for our office to provide a lot of support to the family. Aside from trying to answer questions and providing some contacts in the local school division for the younger children, most of the support the family ended up needing came from the Immigrant Services Department of Lethbridge Family Services."

Malti gives Jackson a little more credit.

"Miss Trish was constantly in touch with us, whatever questions we had she was always willing to answer," she says. "What we wanted to know about the University, the city, even the education for our other children, she guided us in every way."

It was a bold decision to come to Canada but one that sent a strong message to Malti and Ashok's children. They seem to understand that the risk their parents have made is for their best interests and have embraced the transition from Malaysia to Canada. Leading the way is Priscilla.

"I love it here, it really is amazing," she says. "Getting to know people has been so easy, I really think it's better than where I'm from in Malaysia. I find people have so much respect here, they respect you for who you are and what you do."

The new media program has been everything she could have imagined.

"I don't know where to start, I've only taken five classes but they've all been great," she says. "Right now I'm not even sure what area I want to pursue. I want to go into animation but at the same time I feel like I want to do film, I want to do graphics, I want to do everything."

Priscilla truly lives the campus experience. She's active with the International Centre, has joined student clubs and taken in everything Canadian.

"I love the snow. Even though a lot of people tell me I'll hate it soon I don't think so, at least not yet," she says. "After coming here I started involving myself in skating and going to hockey matches, I just wanted to try everything."

Priscilla's brothers and sisters have followed her lead. They quickly adapted to their new schools, are active in local choirs and activities and have excelled academically.

Malti rests easier now knowing that the new life she and Ashok have chosen for their children seems to agree with them. She has also embraced her new surroundings, first by volunteering for local organizations this past fall and through the Christmas season, and recently by taking a part-time job.

While the family thrives here in Canada, it isn't without sacrifice as Ashok stays behind to support their new life.

"My dad's amazing," Priscilla says of Ashok, the managing director of a textile company. Malti finds it tough without her husband but instead looks at the situation from his perspective.

"I have my children with me and Priscilla, she understands what mom is going through and she helps out in every way," she says. "My husband is alone there and he has to take care of it alone and that is hard."

The plan is for Ashok to reunite with his family here in Canada in two or three years, just in time for Malti and her children to become Canadian citizens and for Priscilla to graduate (she's planning on taking summer courses to finish her degree earlier).

Now, it's hard to believe Priscilla ever had any doubts about coming to Canada – but there was that one day.

"When I landed in Lethbridge and I looked around and all I saw was prairies and mountains, I wanted to go home," she says. "I wasn't sure if I could do it, but my dad told me it's about change and I have to learn how to adapt and it turns out that it's pretty good now."


• The Patels are from the Malaysian island of Penang. The average maximum temperature in Penang only varies from 30.4 degrees in September to 32.2 degrees in March.

• Jackson has been to 14 countries since being hired as international recruitment officer in August 2007. She heads out on a seven-country trip through Latin America this month.

• Priscilla and her siblings all attended international schools growing up. Priscilla's final years of study at Taylor's University College in Kuala Lumpur featured a Canadian-based curriculum developed in Ontario.

• The family pays great reverence to their father Ashok as Natasha brought a picture of him to the interview, telling her mother that he was a part of the family and should be part of the experience.