More than an education

Raised in a rich and predominantly white town in the southern interior of B.C., I was not often exposed to other races and cultures while growing up. I visited Vancouver frequently, but not once did I pay attention to my multicultural surroundings. I was oblivious.

Photo by Vancouver Island University, Flickr.

Photo by Vancouver Island University, Flickr.

After graduating high school, I moved to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia (UBC). My decision and acceptance to the school were met with congratulations and questions about my ambitions. But what surprised me was my neighbours and friends slipping in derogatory comments or asking how I was going to compete with “smart Asians stealing Canadian spots.” I didn’t respond to the remarks, but I also didn’t know how I felt about them.

Walking around Vancouver I could see and hear all different types of people. But when I entered UBC, I knew I was interacting with the world. I met an international student from China who told me how much he loved Canada because there were so few people and so much open space. I was astonished. For me, Vancouver was a large and populous city, but from his perspective it was a little town.

In addition to the cultural exposure, I experienced being a minority as a white woman in the chemistry department, forcing me to think long and hard about the racism and discrimination the Asian community was facing from the people around me. I began to think about why people were upset by changing demographics on campus. And I began to feel angry about it. As I grew more confident in my values and beliefs, I realized I had something to say to people who expressed prejudiced views. University is about educating people, not just the people who attend, but all the people whose lives graduates touch.

So that’s what I began to do. When people would ask about the Asian population at UBC over Christmas dinner, or when I would run into acquaintances back home making prejudiced comments, I would say three key things. The government pays to subsidize education. I wanted the brightest and most engaged students to have those spots. Secondly, only students with Canadian citizenship are subsidized. International students pay large sums of money to attend university. Increasing the number of international students on campus helps with more than just diversity. And finally, I would tell them that I enjoyed getting to know people from different backgrounds and cultures because it enhanced my own education, making it something more than just grades on a piece of paper.

Undertones of racism and discrimination don’t just exist in small towns. In my own life, I have experienced how interactions between students are shaped by the language of ethnicity and assumptions that come with it. I once had a job where a co-worker of Asian heritage said to me, “you’re not really white – you work like an Asian.” Another time, a friend told me, “you’re not like a white girl – you don’t talk like one.” I remain disturbed by and confused about how to handle comments like these. I know that they were meant to be compliments, but they still involve making assumptions about my character, and those of others, based on the colour of my skin. So my education is not over yet.

Our community has become too focused on what ethnicity is filling the seat of our universities rather than on what type of people we want to be producing through education. Vancouver has accepted various cultures into our city and schools, but they are not wholly included yet – a blemish on our cultural mosaic. Vancouver and UBC have taught me chemistry, but they have also shown me the need to speak out and try to shift the dialogue surrounding racism and discrimination.