InsightOut: What it Means to be a Canadian

Disha Makhijani is currently Executive Assistant at the Division of Continuing Education at  the University of St. Michael’s College. Prior to that, Disha worked at the USMC President’s Office. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Science from the University of Toronto.  

I remember being 18 years old, wide-eyed and eager, when I first landed in Toronto in 2013 as an international student enrolled at the University of Toronto. I was excited to be a part of frosh week and get moved into Chestnut, the student residence that would become home for the next four years.  

I had the privilege of growing up in six different countries around the world because of my father’s job, which gave me a unique perspective in how I approached the world. I am ethnically Indian, born in Turkey and graduated high school from Nigeria, so Toronto represented to me what I’d known my whole life: a melting pot of many different cultures and languages.  

A Canadian flag flies outside of Brennan Hall

As I sit here almost 11 years later, I think back to the many years cycling through study permits, work permits, and permanent residence, all of which finally led to the moment I was sworn in as a Canadian citizen. 

While not a typical ceremony (it was over Zoom), the moment I sang O Canada, the Canadian national anthem, it still felt surreal. I remember the many faces on the screen, the presiding judge in his regalia, the comment he made about every person on that call being a representation of what Canada stood for – a country built on immigrants. In more ways than one, I felt like I had achieved the Canadian dream. 

The road to get there had not been without challenges, however. As a first-generation immigrant, I knew I would face many more obstacles than perhaps the average Canadian. While the culture in Canada wasn’t a shock, being many thousands of miles away from family was at times isolating. Every weekend the students in my residence would go visit their parents, but unfortunately, my time with family was limited to holidays and summer – so in many ways, I had to “grow up” a lot more quickly in order to manage living on my own.  

While at U of T, I was a part of my college’s student council, worked at the University of Toronto Students’ Union, and I was a work-study student at the Hospital for Sick Children. All of these experiences helped me feel I was part of a community. These opportunities helped shape my undergraduate experience and helped me become a the much more well-rounded and confident person I am today.   

The year 2017 rolled around, and it was finally convocation day — a cold, overcast day in November. Everything I had worked so hard for in the last four years had finally led to the moment my degree would be conferred. The day was one of celebration with friends and family, but I found myself wondering what lay ahead.  

After graduating, I worked service jobs for a few years while I tried my best to land a job that would give me the skilled work experience I needed in order to become a permanent resident. This led to a brief career working as an assistant and receptionist in the veterinary field, which was challenging in its own way. I knew that was not where I wanted to be permanently, but it was important to me, especially as a first-generation immigrant, that I be resilient and not give up.  

I got my first big career break working in administration for a large, well-known mental health company. Working in mental health made me feel like I was contributing to a great cause and had a purpose at last. While not exactly aligned with what I studied in university, I was slowly starting to realize that life was not like a monopoly board. It wasn’t going to be one step after another until you reach the finish line – it was more like a game of Snakes and Ladders. Sometimes you were going to be pulled all the way down to the beginning, and sometimes you’d come across unexpected opportunities that led to great places.  

I found my “ladder” when I received a job offer to work at St. Mike’s and found meaning in my work. 

In many ways, life had come full circle. I now get to contribute in a meaningful way to initiatives that contribute to student wellbeing and success and get to share my own experiences with those who are where I was 11 years ago. Every year when I see new students pouring into campus at orientation I am reminded of where I used to be and smile to myself internally, knowing that life has a way of working out. It is an incredibly rewarding feeling, and one that I would not change for the world. To me, these are the experiences that shaped what it means to be Canadian.    

Read other InsightOut posts.