The first day of school for Angelica Cortes presented more than the usual fears.
The nine-year-old took some English classes before she and her family moved to Canada from Colombia. But everyone spoke English so fast in Canada.
For the first eight months, she often carried a Spanish-English dictionary, wrote out sentences in Spanish and then translated them into English.
Thankfully, her classmates were welcoming and supportive. As she learned English, the other students even got to pick up some Spanish, which is Cortes’s first language.
Now the Grade 12 student at Notre Dame High School is one of 20 Notre Dame and Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive high school students who will help to welcome new immigrants to Canada to their high schools with the NOW program.
“I would like to share my experiences with the other kids who are coming in,” Cortes said. “It’s an easier way of easing into high school rather than just coming in.”
The NOW program — Newcomer Orientation Week — started in Ontario five years ago and is being piloted in Red Deer this year. Settlement Support in Schools workers Amy Paran and Helen Dunbar have spent this week training the students, from Tuesday to Thursday, on how to welcome their classmates. The students will use what they’ve learned next week with the new students.
The NOW facilitator students have done everything from team building exercises — including carrying an egg around, naming it and then creating a contraption to protect it — to performing skits that they hope to share with the newcomers next week. Each of the students helping in the NOW program did their own profile and worked on the projects that the immigrant students will get to do next week.
“We’ve become really close because we have one common goal,” Cortes said.
Many of the students who are part of the NOW program were once in the same position as the students they will help, with some speaking Spanish, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto. Others are just interested in helping new students transition into a new culture, school and language.
Catherine Ford, a Grade 12 student at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School, remembers how challenging it was to move from Saskatchewan to Alberta and meet new friends, but she said she can’t believe how tough it would be for someone to leave their country and have to learn a whole new language and culture.
“I think it is really important for (the students) to be comfortable right away and not have to worry,” Ford said.
She said the NOW program will give students safe people they can talk to if they have a question.
Amy Paran, a Settlement Support in Schools worker, said 30 to 40 new students are expected to join the high schools from places as far away as Africa, South America, Russia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The goal is to ease that transition and make sure they are happy and comfortable attending school and help them be successful,” Paran said.