By Athanasia Guerra, 3rd-year – Journalism
Justin Nguyen moved from Vietnam to Canada to study and build a life here. Now, many years later, he is helping more than 40 international students to do the same.
“I do it because I love to help the students as well as the Vietnamese community.”
When he was just 15 years old Justin Nguyen came to Canada. He graduated from Mohawk College in 2009 with a duel diploma in Business and Marketing. He recently got his degree in business administration from Brock University, and is now a full time federal officer for the Government of Canada.
In between the time of his graduation from Mohawk and the start of his university career, Justin owned a franchise restaurant business for four years.
“My dream was to open a restaurant so that’s what I did, but I found that the restaurant was too time-consuming and labour intensive for me, so I sold the restaurant to do something that would fit my lifestyle better and allowed me more time to spend helping students.”
Sometime in 2008, while studying at Mohawk College, Nguyen went to Leo Barsony’s office to inquire for information about his visa.
That is when Leo asked Justin if he wanted to help the college to recruit students from Vietnam, but at that time he was hesitant to do so because he didn’t see himself as qualified for the job.
Later that year when he went back to Vietnam to visit his family, Justin saw Leo at the education fair and Leo asked him again.
“That was then I decided to work with him.”
Since then, almost every year he travels to Vietnam to attend the education fair hosted by the Canadian Embassy. There he meets with parents and students who are interested in coming to Canada to study, and speaks to them about his experiences as a student in Canada. He gives them a more “realistic” understanding of life in Canada.
“Because I was an international student and had been through all levels of education myself, I understand the challenges that an international student would face when coming to Canada,” said Nguyen.
In Vietnam, college is only for people who couldn’t get into university, which is why Justin finds many of the student’s parents think university is the only option for post-secondary education.
Explaining that college and university are two different routes in Canada, college being for more technical/career-focused education whereas university is for more academic studies, is his “biggest” task.
His second biggest task is convincing parents not to let their son or daughter live with relatives, even though that is usually their first instinct. Based on his own experience, and the experience of other students, relatives end up finding them a “burden” after a couple of months, regardless if they are paying rent or not.
“I help the students to choose a program that suits their interests and once they get the visa and arrive in Canada I help them for the first few weeks by showing them around the city, teaching them how to take the bus, open bank accounts, go grocery shopping, as well as register them with the school.”
“Most of [my] time is spent answering emails and Facebook messages from the students and their parents. I’m the guy they call if they need any kind of advice choosing courses, dealing with landlords, and the government. Their parents also contact me regularly to ask for updates on their son or daughters process in Canada.”
He laughs, “The kids usually don’t tell their parents as much as they tell me.”
Helping these students is something that Justin loves to do and plans to keep doing as long as he can, and finds it incredibly rewarding.
“I think the best reward for me is every time I return to Vietnam, whether it’s for my personal family visits or travelling with the college. The parents of past and current students always call me and invite me out for dinner. I often get a very warm handshake and a pat on the back from them, thanking me for helping their son or daughter in Canada.”
Justin continued, “I also have parents from remote provinces in Vietnam that, when they know I am back, would send me things they make and sell at home, as gifts. Sometimes it’s honey, coffee, peppercorn, or dried seafood. I am very appreciative of all the gifts and dinner invitation and they make me know that I am doing something good.”
Selling Mohawk to other Vietnamese immigrants is easy for Justin because his experience at Mohawk was a positive one that has shaped his life and career.
“I think Mohawk College has given me a strong foundation for my career, and all the marketing I’ve learned was fully utilized in my plan to help Mohawk become a better known “brand” in the Vietnamese community in Hamilton and Vietnam.”
“Back in 2008 nobody in Vietnam knew about Mohawk. But if you went to the Canadian fair in Vietnam now and ask any parent, they’re likely to tell you they have heard about Mohawk, whereas other college’s names are still strange to them.”
When asked what his favourite memory from Mohawk is, he paraphrased one of the first things Leo told him on his orientation day:
“When you help someone it is like you’re making a savings deposit into their bank. So, don’t be afraid to make lots of deposits because you never know when you might need to cash them out.”