By Deborah Wong

In my family, it is not common for us to study overseas. In a small town in Malaysia, my grandfather raised five children on his own after my grandmother passed away from cancer. My mother grew up being told that education was not for women and that our only chance for a “good” life is to marry into a well-off family to become a doting wife and good mother. To a large extent, my mother believed that all her life and tried to impart it on me. I resisted. I remember telling my parents my aspirations to go to a good university overseas when I was 17 and was told that we did not have the means. 

Studying overseas is expensive, especially when you come from a developing country. And I cannot express this enough. International students pay six times the tuition of a local student in Canada. Living costs in Canada are also extremely unbearable when your currency back home is so much weaker. Despite being accepted into UofT in 2016, I had to defer my acceptance because we simply did not have that amount of money. I spent the year applying for scholarships and after months of application processes, interviews, and rejections, I was finally awarded full funding for tuition, living and other expenses. I vividly remember that the day I received the call about my scholarship offer, I instantly phoned my grandfather to hear him scream with pride and joy from the other end of the phone. Tears of joy rolled down my face as years of an uncertain future finally came to a halt. 

Graduation this year means everything to me. Not just graduating from university itself, but being the first in my family to do so overseas. I am talking about the ceremony. I spent four years away from family because flights were always too expensive for any of them to visit me. Instead, they promised to save up for four years to be able to attend my graduation ceremony. I have waited long and patiently to celebrate this moment with them: my parents, siblings and notably, my grandfather, who has never attended a graduation ceremony in his life. Thus, you can imagine my disappointment to hear that the class of 2021 will be getting a pre-recorded video as our graduation ceremony. Imagine my heartbreak as I watch COVID cases climbing by day in Ontario, making it impossible for my family to visit me. Imagine my agony relaying all this to my devastated grandfather. 

As I  approach the end of my semester, I am beginning to holistically reflect on my time with Uoft, with Toronto, and with Canada in general. The plans I had for a lavish and heartfelt graduation ceremony may have been derailed by the pandemic, but the past four years have been nothing but rewarding, humbling, and my best learning experience. The times I struggled: not being able to afford rent in this city; adapting to a whole new country and culture; balancing my part-time jobs with a full-course load. But, also the times I flourished—learning from some of the best professors in classes I adored; travelling the world for tournaments with the debate club; and meeting people who eventually became my dearest friends. 

I may not fully know what the future holds for me, but I think my grandfather is proud of the person I have become today. That is enough for now.

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