Community, Inclusion, and the Academic Journey: An Interview with International Student Representative Maleeka Thomas

Interview by Shawn Funk

I sat down with Maleeka Thomas, the International Student Representative at the U of L, to learn a bit about her life and the important work she does. Maleeka is a fervent ally and supporter of the international community at the University. She is determined to find solutions for international students who struggle to find proper housing, food, and work supplies. Her goal is to ease the transition from their home countries to Canada and to foster a community of inclusion at the University. Maleeka suggests that we have much work ahead to build  the kind of community she envisions: one of inclusive representation for all groups, despite beliefs, backgrounds, or skin colour. I was surprised to learn from Maleeka that most international students leave the University without making a genuine Canadian friend, suggesting that we need to change our, so far, empty words about inclusion and community into meaningful actions that produce palpable results. The following is an edited version of the conversation I had with Maleeka on February 14, 2023. Enjoy!      

I read that you were born in Portmore, Jamaica. What can you tell me about your hometown?

“Portmore is known as the hottest city in Jamaica. It’s called the sunshine city. I was born and raised there, grew up there my entire life, and went to primary school there, but I went to high school in Kingston. At 17, I got an early entrance into university, and I made the journey here.”

Did you face any challenges when you arrived?

“One thing that dawned on me was the fact that I had to come into contact with my blackness. It wasn’t something that I thought about at home, coming from a predominantly Black country. I would say there were some racial barriers coming here. I experienced that myself. A huge company here in Lethbridge that rents out apartment space didn’t want to rent to me because I was an international student. There were also challenges with culture shock. I remember driving down from Calgary to Lethbridge. There were no buildings, just flat lands. It was like a two-hour drive. I never sat in a car for two hours to drive home before. I would say that where I’m from, it is a lot more community-based. I am slowly seeing that build here at the University, but I feel like we can get to a point where it is better in terms of community. Back home, everybody is always out on the street; you hardly find people indoors. but you come here and it is so quiet on the street. Everybody is indoors or in their backyards. I have never talked to any of my neighbours here, and (laughs) that’s the first sign that it’s not really a community. Normally I’m outdoors with my neighbours, or picking fruit off trees and walking around.”

How do you like the weather in Lethbridge?

“When I stepped off the plane in Canada, I was like, holy, it is sooo cold! Why is it so cold? Snow was a shocker for me. It was the first time I had seen snow in September. The wind is something that blew my mind. I am from a Caribbean Island that sees hurricane-force winds, and this is something that I have never experienced before.”

I heard that you want to be a judge. What made you choose this?

“All my life, I wanted to be a psychologist. I have three family members that are clinical psychologists, and I thought this is what I want to do, this is my life, I love it. Love people, love chatting. I studied sociology, law, communications, and economics at Six Form in Jamaica, and I realized that there is a lot of times that people are disregarded when it comes to the law. Story time, I was returning from a vacation in Florida and my grandad called saying, “hey I can’t find your uncles where are they?” Then my grandma got a call from her friends telling her that her sons were being arrested. They were face down on the ground in the hot sun on the asphalt, and so I was like what the hell is going on. I asked the cop if they had been read their Miranda rights, they hadn’t. Turns out it was a wrongful arrest, but they still took them away and held them for 5-10 days, and that shifted my whole perspective. Police react differently when you know the law. I realized that the judge makes the final decision, and oftentimes you find people who are not representative of the wider community. The empathy is not there for people who have been wrongfully accused or convicted, and you find that oftentimes the people in marginalized communities are the ones in prison. Here you have more Indigenous men in prison than there are represented in the whole population. Why is that? Nobody is questioning that. I feel like we need judges that are more representative of the population.”

You do a ton of work for the international center at the U. What kinds of projects are you involved with as the International Student Rep?

“I represent international students and advocate on their behalf. This year I have had the opportunity to sit in committees and meetings to advocate for the student’s needs because we know that international students pay three times more than the average student. At the same time, they are being treated as second-class citizens. People always think that international students that come here are just rich kids who have it all and just come here for education, but that’s far from the truth. A lot of us have parents who had to give up comforts for us to come here. When you get here, that money runs out really fast. These students are not being advocated for. They can’t get loans, and scholarships are very limited to them. There is no financial aid provided for international students. My main job here has been to support international students in any way I can. Back in December, I organized care packages for international students because many do not get to go home for the two-week break. Travelling home is expensive, so they are stuck here during Christmas when everybody else is with their families and friends. They are stuck in the dorms by themselves. Many of the international students stay on campus.”

You have mentioned that food and housing security for international students is becoming a problem, and you recently met with Dr. Erasmus Okine who is the Vice President Academic to discuss some ways that these problems could be addressed. Can you discuss any details from this conversation?

“One thing that we talked about was the fact that we need to have orientation packages that are geared specifically to the international student. We talked about having support because there is big talk of internationalization of the university, but there are no talks for support for these students, and that was my main concern. The international center right now has only three advisors and probably five or six persons on staff. But that is not enough for the number of international students here. There are approximately 1500 international students. Three advisors for 1500 international students just aren’t enough. This semester we saw a record number of 400 international students coming here to study. Normally it’s about 50 students we see coming in spring, but this was unprecedented. There is no support set in place for these students. I had a call from a student who was traveling down from Edmonton, but their housing was not ready for them for another two weeks. That student had to stay in a motel. It blew my mind! Why can’t we find solutions for these students? Why can’t we be able to facilitate them somewhere until they are able to move into their housing? That’s one of the biggest things we talked about. I had another student ask for office supplies to work at home and I made sure to go around to try to get that person the supplies they needed to work at home because you come here as an international student and you don’t have any furniture for your house. A lot of times instructions get lost in translation, or there is discrimination.”

What are some of the other issues raised by international students that concern you on campus?

“A lot of International Students do not have a Canadian friend. There was a survey done and approximately 83 percent of international students do not have a genuine Canadian friend, and they leave university without a Canadian friend. You ask yourself if we are facilitating and fostering a community, why is it that these students who are paying so much are secluded are pushed in the corner. I feel like this is something that we could resolve very quickly by bridging gaps between communities. That is one of the major reasons why I got into the role, and I try my best to connect people to different places, and I made sure during the student orientation that I took them around and allowed me to meet different people. Normally we have international student orientation separate and apart from the regular student orientations. So last semester I made sure that these students were placed in the same room because if we are all students alike why are we separated. Yes, we need to know different information, but have a session on a different day. We are stuck in a room with no windows, that was my experience just learning about immigration for like three hours. I don’t want to learn about immigration to be honest. I just want to know what I should do and what I shouldn’t do and that’s it.”

You work with the EDIA task force as well? What kind of work happens there?

“EDIA is equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility. A lot of times, you hear EDI and not the A, and I had to make sure that with the sub-committee that we are forming at the ULSU that we had a section for accessibility because oftentimes, students with disabilities are left off the EDI. They are not talked about. They are not mentioned at all, but it’s a big issue we face on campus. This campus is not accessible at all. The doors are so heavy. There is no way to get around if you are in a wheelchair, so that was my main focus, adding accessibility to the program. With the EDIA committee, I co-chair with Nathan Crow, the Indigenous Student Representative. What we do is make sure that our policies reflect what we are preaching. Are we just saying it because it looks good? What do you know about EDI if you are not getting advice from Indigenous people or people of colour who are experiencing these things in their daily lives? One thing that I make sure of is that there is representation all around; our EDI community is inclusive of everybody, whoever you are, it is inclusive for you.”

The U of L is a signatory of the Scarborough Charter that aims to redress anti-Black racism and foster black inclusion on campuses across Canada. How well is the U of L living up to these principles?

“I feel like the EDI team here at the University, they are doing a good job so far, mind you they just got into the university. We are like fifty years behind as it relates to EDI, but nevertheless, they are here now, and the work that they are doing is good. The Scarborough Charter: I haven’t heard of it, but why is that? If we are signing it why isn’t it being talked about. Did we sign it just to say we did? We are also signing the Buffalo Treaty with the Indigenous Peoples on the Treaty 7 territory. It’s aimed to foster a strong relationship between settlers and Indigenous people here on Treaty 7 territory.”

What are some concrete examples of how these principles are being implemented across campus?

“You see, now that it is Black History Month, they are facilitating a little money for these students, but this is not fixing anything. If anything, it is showing the barriers for these marginalized communities more. I feel that if you want to help communities create effective change that can last, giving money for these events doesn’t make an impact. How about creating scholarships centred around Black Inclusion, equity, and diversity? How about creating scholarships centred around marginalized groups and having students apply for these scholarships on campus? It could be scholarships or financial aid. I don’t one hundred percent know, but based on my knowledge of how things have been going in the last couple of weeks, they are giving us something now because it is Black History Month, but after February 28, they are going to forget about us until next year on February 1? When I first arrived, I discovered we didn’t have a Black History Month celebration until 2021. Then when we did have it, it was shoved on the backs of the International Center, and there was only one Black person in the international center. How is that representative of the international students here on campus? This year it’s a little bit better, but it could be a lot better. It shows how there is a specific time that you are shoved into one box, and then after that, peace out. I feel like it happens to a lot of marginalized communities.”

What is the significance of this year’s BHM theme? Building a Culture of Authentic Black Inclusion: Moving from resistance to change.  Unpack the language for me.

“I don’t understand the full scope of the theme, but what I can say about the word authentic is it highlights how we as a people weren’t seen as authentic. That’s what I get. People see us for face value. You’re Black, your beautiful, lets celebrate you. But there is more to me than my blackness. I feel like when talking about Black inclusion there are spaces and tables that we are not at. I sit on the General Faculties Council, besides Dr. Okine who is the vice-president I am probably the only Black person sitting at the table, and I can’t really speak for the Black community. I can only speak for the international community because that is who I represent. So, who do we have at the table who represents this community? Who do we have included in these spaces when they are making decisions that directly and indirectly affect us?”

It goes further than just being invited to the table, right? I mean I was invited to the grown-up table when I was a young boy. That doesn’t mean I was allowed an opinion.

“I think there should be some caution because there is a lot of tokenism that goes on in this campus. I would charge anyone with the task of looking around on the campus, go into almost every office and look at the person at the front desk and then look at the persons behind the desk and one thing I’ve noticed and I can speak for this building (SU) is that in most spaces there is probably a person of color at the desk or you have a woman at the desk, but then you look behind and its like 85% white male. How does this reflect this notion of inclusion and diversity?”

I saw a recent interview of yours from the U of L website, and you had some very powerful advice for new students—It does not matter how long you take; it matters about the journey. How did you come to this philosophy? Where did you learn it?

“I wholeheartedly believe that in any space you go, you need to make a positive impact. You need to create space where your name can be remembered, and a lot of people tend to, especially international students.I know that it is very expensive; they pay so much, so they just want to get through and get done on time, so they won’t have to pay a lot of money, which is fair. Completely fair, but I also feel like in the time  you are here don’t worry about when you’re going to finish. If you only focus on how are you going to finish, then what about the journey? What about grasping everything within the journey? My grandma said to me before I left, “Your journey says a lot about you, take in every moment of the journey.” Assoon as she said that to me that’s how I have lived every moment here. Because the reality as an international student is that it could be taken away from you in split seconds. They could be like, “ya, you gotta leave.” That’s just how I live my life, takin’ in the journey. Its about the journey. Its not about when you finish, but how strong you finish.”

Lightning Round

Who is your hero?

“My hero is Marcus Garvey.”

Name a  dish from Jamaica.

“Rice and peas and chicken.”

I have heard you say, “Me likkle but me talawa.” What does it mean?

“It means “I am small, but I am mighty!”

Is there anything else you would like the student body to know?

“One thing I would love the student body to know is that international students are here. Black students are here. Indigenous students are here. Students in the 2SLGBTQIA+ are here. See us for who we are. Accept us for who we are.”

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