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Diversity, inclusion, representation: What do they mean to us? Why do they matter? I used to ask myself these questions upon landing on Coast Salish territory in 2013.

Palm field in the Dominican Republic

If I am coming to a country that wants me, it should be an easy process to settle in, right?

It should be a happy ride, no? If you also left your home to build a new life in Canada then you must have experienced something similar.

You probably miss your food, the weather, the colors. I missed the sun and the warmth of the people.

We both know the feelings of confusion for not knowing how to take the bus (or maybe that was just me?), how to send mail, paying my phone on time or the importance of building good credit.

After all, back home we get most of our support from our family, our neighbors, our friendswe hug, laugh, gather for birthdays and holiday dinners. I have more aunts than I can count, I have cousins all around the world and was recently asked how come your family is so big, how many kids did your parents have?

Some of my cousins, aunts and uncles in the Dominican Republic

How come you have so many brothers and sisters if your parents only had 3 kids?

One of the challenges that hit me upon arriving to Canada… The definition of family was different for Canadians than back home. This connection we shared and that I have now found is also what kept our culture and community alive. So, how do people thrive in Canada?

With one of my grandmothers, Yeya, in Juan Dolio, Dominican Republic

Fortunately, Victoria is a big place for diversity. A place with people from all over the world! I started learning new words, eating new foods, traditions and most importantly, I started learning more and appreciating my own culture. Unfortunately, it seems we rarely value what we have until it is gone. when I started missing my life back home I wished I had spent more time learning how to cook, how to craft traditional objects or even more of our dances. The good side of the story is that

I learned to love my hair, my skin, my language, and roots.

Here is also where I became more aware of the challenges around the world and how history had impacted so many people, including my own. From communities being displaced and having to ‘integrate’ into a new society, to microaggressions and racism at a larger scale. By learning from others I soon realized that leaving home for a better life was more than just moving away. It somehow felt like I was shedding my old skin, that a different person had to make it through the ordeals.

Thankfully I found myself surrounded by community leaders who guided and mentored me. For example at the University of Victoria, where I met Anne Cirillo, the founder of the UVic Global Community. The Global Community became a second home for me. From stories being shared to building trust. I felt I had found a place where I belonged. I was also challenged and given countless opportunities to shape policies and strategies at UVic. I attended my first conference in Canada, learned to articulate my ideas but most importantly, I began to understand other people’s perspectives.

Members of the UVic Global Community Student Advisory Council about to present at the Pathways to Prosperity Workshop on the challenges faced by newcomers / international students

From there we continued working with policy-makers and change-makers. I personally found inspiration in other people who openly called out injustice but also took the initiative to empower others. I would fall asleep listening to Malala and learning from the autobiographies of people like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and notes from Amandla Stenberg.

By 2015 I had my first Co-op as a youth STEM instructor with Science Venture. This opportunity exposed me to being an educator, developing curriculum, and teaching the youth. During the school year, I continued working with them and focused on teaching technology to girls and bringing STEM to Indigenous communities. I became a member of student groups, helped organize events, and started blogging for the University. I became a member of the board of directors of the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research (SIETAR BC) and was part of the launching of the Inclusion Project.

Something had changed in me. I had come to Canada for a degree in Biology but now felt like I had stronger bonds with my relatives in Victoria than with some of my lifelong friends back home. My sense of identity grew, I began to learn more about my own culture and identities. I started becoming more comfortable talking about my mental health and acknowledging how I truly felt: sometimes disconnected, alone, happy, fulfilled… coming to Canada was an emotional rollercoaster.

Our family visiting from the D.R.! Can you believe my grandmother, with 83 years, made it to graduation?
With my relative, Erynne Michelle, at a traditional naming ceremony

After graduating I started stepping outside the university to find a whole world full of different professions, organizations, and projects. I realized that the opportunities I had, from going to UVic with a scholarship to the relations developed over the years were a privilege. I constantly asked myself, how could I use my knowledge in a way that brings value to the world? How can I bring this knowledge back home? How can I do my work on this territory while honoring my heritage? Everything I did moving forward had to align with my answers. Whether it was working on my social enterprise, volunteering or collaborating with organizations, I had decided what legacy and community I wanted to help create.

I will leave the answers to these questions for a different post. What I do know is that the past years in Canada have shaped the way I see the world, the way I experience connections and how I see myself as a member of this society. How about you? How has your perception of the world changed? How have your relations evolved?

You see, I wanted to share these questions and mini-stories because these are not mine alone. I know that the challenges to finding my first job are also someone else’s challenge. I know mental health is something we need to address more often among us newcomers. I know financial literacy has to become an integral part of our process to build our new home. I know we already are entrepreneurs in our own respective fields. Finally, I believe the only way we will strengthen our communities is by working together.

Where am I today? I am advocating for financial literacy and the inclusion of underserved groups in business. My vision is to help build bridges to make financial education more accessible. Surprised I am not in Biology? Don’t worry, I still use all the skills I learned in my degree. Most importantly, by sharing a part of my story I want this to be a reminder to feel proud and honor our heritage. This is why representation to me matters, why it is important for someone like you or me to show up. Bluntly, with excellence, because we carry more skills and knowledge than what we can write on a piece of paper.

During an entrepreneurship and finance workshop. Photo credit: Zuhey Diaz

As I write this post I am celebrating. Last month I had the honor of receiving the Youth R.E.P. award from Here Magazine. The gala night was filled with fun, laughter, dances and delicious food. The award came as a surprise, I rarely stop to reflect on everything that has happened in the past years but I now understand, this is also a part of celebrating us.

Everything I wrote aboutthe projects, organizations, my social enterprisethey have all happened because we worked together. This award represents and belongs to all of us. We would not be here without everything we have done. I feel grateful to live in a place where representation is celebrated, where there is work being done to amplify the voices of the community. I am honored that such a beautiful organization like Here Magazine, together with the judges, considered me for this award. Most importantly, I am here writing today because of someone like you, the person who nominated me (you know I love you).

At the Youth R.E.P. Award Gala, grateful and honored for receiving this recognition

I am looking forward to using this platform to share more stories and different perspectives. I am grateful to have you in my life.

With love and respect,

Yamila

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