The October edition of our Together We Are blog is by Theresa Yamson (Sci ’95). In this blog piece, Theresa looks back on her time at Queen’s and the family she developed throughout her university years.
The old adage that to “really know a people you must live amongst them” holds true for most aspects of our lives, and provides a richness to our cultural development that I can truly attest to. Since my childhood I’ve been fortunate to visit, and in some cases spend a fair amount of time in a number of countries worldwide that I like to think I can appreciate enough about different aspects of culture. One of these places that for me holds many fond memories and opened up a wealth of cultural experiences, and to which I owe some of my strength of character today is Kingston, Ontario.
Being an international student at Queen’s in the mid-nineties was fraught with challenges that today most students would fail to understand – key being the lack thereof of connectivity. It meant you either integrated into the Queen’s society and forged strong connections or were isolated and lonely. I chose the former, and as a result I truly gained the full experience of being far away from home whilst appreciating the many who bonded with me and shared their lives. Certainly not all experiences were enjoyable or rewarding. I faced my share of prejudice, ignorance and a few incidents of racism, but I want to dwell on the wonderful experiences and use this as a tribute to those who reached out and enriched my life during those years. I also hope that in my time spent there I was able to give others a glimpse of the richness that Africa, in particular Ghana has to offer.
Unlike most international students I opted to stay in the local residence of Ban-Righ Hall, rather than the International Floor in Victoria. It was here that a new friend eagerly took me to meet her parents, both of whom had experienced Ghana shortly after it gained independence in 1957. Through their carefully preserved projector slides I caught a glimpse of my capital city, Accra, and what a contrast to the bustle I knew it to be. With them I understood the true meaning of “road kill” as we shared a dinner of venison that her dad’s car had run over during his last trip home.
To the girls on my floor came the surprise that I could speak another language, and we tried, amidst much laughter, to pronounce key words in my local tongue. It was with my Chinese friend that I realised that Mandarin and my African language shared an aspect of formation and structure which was an economy of words, and a reliance on intonation and inflexion that is not found in English. With my new friends I mastered the art of bundling up against the cold, to enjoy the snow, whilst missing hot sunny days and Christmas spent on the beach. Trudging through the snow to class one morning, after a bad snow storm, a mate came whizzing by on his skates to class. That was when I admired the resilience of humans to thrive in our various climatic conditions, adapting and creating as we evolved. I never truly mastered the skates myself, but it was fun trying.
A favourite place for all international students had to be the International Centre (QUIC). This was a haven where we could express our cultural differences and glean support from other students on how to cope being so far from home. It was here that I met and grew close to my West Indian friends and discovered the richness of their culture. I marvelled out how my popular West African dish of rice & beans, was also a favourite of theirs, but with a twist of coconut juice that only the “Islands” could add to it. Even the Cajun spices made me realise how much of Africa had been preserved over the centuries and how truly similar we were in key aspects of culture – music, dance and food.
Looking back I didn’t consciously select to participate in differing roles from most Engineers, but I guess my interests led me there. In my first week on campus I was struck by the notion of Campus Security and the “walk home” concept, finding it very laudable and became a member of the Campus Security. Combining the work schedule with that of my Engineering classes was not always easy, but they made allowances when necessary. Even today certain songs, take me back to the Alfies pub on Friday night shifts and lessons of crowd control and managing students. Of course, there were times when I was not on duty and could join in the fun too, and it was a treat when we had our Jamaican “DJ” in the house to step things up a notch.
In my third year I got an opportunity to work as an assistant at the Human Rights Centre during its inception, and this opened a developmental avenue and understanding for me that I leveraged in my roles within industry in later years. I don’t know how many Engineering graduates had some understanding of the Charter on Human Rights, without a Political Science minor but these are the calibre of students that Queen’s has always generated when we grasp the opportunities provided to us, and there were many like me with fascinating interests and hobbies.
To my best friend with whom I shared many a night swotting for an exam, I’m so glad we’ve kept our bond of friendship despite the distance that now separates us. Back then we were the only women of colour, in a challenging field of study, but we had the full support of our peers and professors and did not feel isolated in any way of form. Meritocracy was what counted and we all worked towards a common goal. We did not know what the future held, and where we would end up, but we were certain that with our degree from Queen’s and the family that we had forged, we had established for ourselves the best of opportunities to start us on our career. I gained much more than an education from Queen’s, I inherited a lifetime of experiences and a huge family that continue to shape and broaden my outlook on life even today.