VANCOUVER, British Columbia—Sanyami Shah flew through stages of perspective as her plane ascended from India in January. She dwelled on the sadness of the airport goodbyes to her family, and the tears of her grandmother especially.
Then her view changed from the life she had always known to the new world ahead of her. Regret gave way to premonitions of excitement, intrigue, ambition. By the time she landed in Canada, she was resolute and committed.
“I’ve never been away from my family, I’ve never been away from my home,” says Shah, who hails from Ahmedabad, India. “Two things were going into my mind. I was excited that I’m going to a new place to explore new things, as well as I was nervous that I have to explore it all alone.”
She was entering the inaugural class at Northeastern University in Vancouver. Nine students joined Shah at the university’s temporary facility overlooking Vancouver Harbour, where they are pursuing master’s degrees in computer science. (A permanent facility for the new campus is under construction nearby.)
Shah had been working in India as a junior Big Data analyst and living at home with her parents when she decided to further her education in North America, in order to take her career in a new direction. She had accepted an invitation to attend Windsor University in Ontario when, two weeks before her planned departure to Canada, she learned that she had been accepted by Northeastern in Vancouver.
Shah preferred Northeastern, but she and her parents knew little of Vancouver. Her father, a businessman in India, spoke with Kannan Chandran, assistant director of student recruitment and enrollment at the new campus.
“Sanyami is someone who had never left her comfort zone,” Chandran recalls. “From what I understood, her parents were very concerned about her safety and who she would live with.”
It turned out that three of her new classmates were from Shah’s state of Gujarat, on the west coast of India. They have been sharing an apartment in Vancouver, where Shah tends to initiate the cooking. She is a follower of Jainism, a religion founded in non-violence, with a vegetarian diet that forbids any food that is grown underground. Shah will routinely cook a larger meal at the apartment to suit her needs, and then after she has served herself, her three roommates may add potato, onion, garlic, and other ingredients to the base.
“That builds a connection when you are all from the same place,” Shah says. “You get moral support on the days when you have lots of work to do, or when you are homesick and missing your family. These people are there to say it’s going to be fine. You are going to enjoy each and every situation with them.”
She has been adapting to the student-driven culture of teaching in Vancouver. At school in India, she says, the faculty would spend class hours introducing new material, leaving little time for student input. At Northeastern, conversely, the students tackle new subjects at home and are expected to come to class with any challenges or questions they had.
“The pattern is totally different, and adapting to this pattern was a little bit hard for me,” Shah says. “But the learning has been at a very high level. So I am enjoying it.”
It has also been a growth opportunity for Bethany Edmunds, director of computer science at Northeastern in Vancouver, as she has developed a curriculum to connect with students from a variety of backgrounds. She and her students have spent their initial semester establishing a common ground from which to learn and grow.
“This is not the way that they learned before, and they’re quite open to it,” says Edmunds, whose classes have shifted online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I get to learn, and I really appreciate hearing about their experiences and where their difficulties are. I’m really excited because they are going to be the teachers’ assistants for our next group of students, so setting this tone of learning is really fantastic.”
Shah speaks with her family virtually every day, in spite of the 12.5-hour time difference. Eventually, she hopes to apply her education to a business career in India. In a way, she will be building upon the career of her father—but in a new, high-tech direction.
“After doing my master’s, as my whole family is in India, I will be going there to live,” she says. “I will be exploring the knowledge which I gain here and putting that into my country, to help my people and my family.”
For this was how she made peace with her departure in January. Each of her goodbyes was a promise to come home, smarter and stronger than ever.