Receiving the Most Improved Society Award from SMUSA are Speak Up Executive members (left to right), Claire Chu, Redempta Ishimwe, Samantha Burns, Scott Xing, and Stephanie Zhang. Amali Armony, President of SMUSA, stands in the centre.

Ahead of the Game in Welcoming Refugees

By Renée Hartleib | spring 2016

The Syrian refugee crisis is bringing Canadians of all stripes together to help settle tens of thousands of new families over the next year. This influx of newcomers is also shining a spotlight on certain organizations and institutions who are already doing a great job of welcoming people to our region. 

Saint Mary’s University is one of them. With a student body that is 30% international students, from over 100 countries around the world, Saint Mary’s has long taken a leadership role in assisting students as they settle into school and life in Halifax.

The International Centre is a great first stop, providing support, assistance, and advice to international students, all year around. Couple that with The Language Centre that offers English as a Second Language courses and The Writing Centre that can provide support with classroom note-taking and assignments. Together, these resources help international students with some of the basic building blocks they will need to succeed in their new life, far from home. 

But what about making new friends? What about homesickness? What about fun? That’s where the Speak Up Society comes in.

A desire to make friends and practice her English was what prompted Claire Hou to create the student group three years ago. From a handful of people to literally hundreds, Speak Up is now a SMUSA society that offers events all year around.

From dance workshops to “speed-friending” to a city-wide scavenger hunt, Speak Up is completely run by volunteers, over eighty of them, from over 25 countries! According to Co-President Samantha Burns, the volunteers are the heart of the society. 

“Many of our volunteers are past participants. Speak Up helped them meet new people, make friends, and gain confidence, and then they were inspired to share this experience with others.” The numbers are growing every year and Burns says that having eager volunteers to help plan and pull off their events is essential. 

The fifth year student, majoring in Global Business Management and International Development Studies, is passionate about openness and inclusion. She adds that there is a beautiful blend of native English speakers and those who are just learning the language. “You can’t underestimate the importance of these friendships – it’s really helping to bridge the gap between international and Canadian students.”

Aryadev Roy (Arjo) Chakma agrees. The Asian Studies Major, originally, from Bangladesh, attended his first Speak Up event back in 2013, one week after starting at Saint Mary’s. In the midst of a difficult adjustment to North American culture and society, Chakma quickly found a place that made him feel excited, happy, and comfortable. “That first event I attended was, hands down, the most welcomed and warm I felt in Canada since arriving.” 

The energetic enthusiasm of the group grew on him and he began to attend volunteer meetings. “At Speak Up, I found a fun, safe, and non-judgmental environment and also a place where I could give back to newer students through volunteering, organizing, and captaining events.”

Best of all, Chakma has met his best friends at Speak Up functions. “I’ve probably made a few hundred friends directly through attending, participating, and helping to organize the events,” he says. “Meeting new people every time, talking to them and getting to know them provides the refreshing feeling one needs so badly after putting in incalculable hours over assignments, exams, and part time jobs.”

Happy participants aren’t the only ones noticing that Speak Up is a society to watch. It was recently named the ‘Most Improved Society of the Year’ by SMUSA and has a popular Facebook page:

Campus Notes: “I give because I believe in Saint Mary’s University.”

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