By Sarah Sawler, Photos by Steve Smith/VisionFire
Ossama Nasrallah is now the VP of Student Affairs at Saint Mary’s University’s student union (SMUSA), but three years ago, he wasn’t even considering Halifax.
He wanted to be a dentist. Many universities in the Middle East and Europe offer much shorter programs but when he heard a family member was going to school in Halifax, he decided to leave Kuwait and give it a try.
He arrived in Halifax in May 2014. It was shocking. He spent his first two weeks in Canada in Toronto, so in contrast Halifax felt like “kind of a village.” But it didn’t take long for Nasrallah to get comfortable.
He spent four months in SMU’s University Bridging Program, which provides students with 15 hours per week of instruction in “English for Academic Purposes” as they ease into university life with one or two undergraduate courses. He spent his first four months living in residence, and by the time the rest of the students came back to school in September, he was ready to tackle a science degree and get involved.
Nasrallah jumped into university life. He switched from science to commerce and marketing early on (he says science just wasn’t for him) and his commitment to his school community has never wavered. His Saint Mary’s Co-Curricular Record shows more than 1,150 hours of involvement in a range of activities and societies.
His first year, he did something first-year students just don’t do: he ran for SMUSA president against fourth- and fifth-year students. He lost, but not easily discouraged, he applied to be a SMUSA vice-president.
“That didn’t work,” he says. “But I came back the next September as a Pack Leader for the student association’s Welcome Week. I got involved with Enactus, Habitat for Humanity, SAGA (Students Acting for Global Awareness), and the Commerce Society.”
In 2016, he decided to try for SMUSA president again. He ran, but so did a couple of his friends, including Kazi Rahman, who ultimately won with just six votes more than Nasrallah’s 585, and Collette Robert, who is now SMUSA’s VP of Equity and Wellness.
“I think we were all really positive with each other,” says Robert. “We supported each other, helped each other with our posters, it was a really positive experience. And we all ended up working together in the end when his best friend got president, and then [Rahman] hired both of us to return to the office as executives. I think times like that really show who a person is and Ossama always stayed grounded and supportive. Sometimes being a leader is following, if you know someone is going in the right direction.”
Cathie Ross, General Manager at SMUSA, laughs a little when she thinks about all this. “Ossama encouraged Kazi to run,” she says. “And he accepted the results, he didn’t ask for a recount, even after losing by just six votes. He’s just such a gentleman, a very good person.”
Nasrallah started his first term as VP of Student Affairs in November 2015. In this role, he’s responsible for overseeing more than 60 student associations and all student initiatives.
“I was one of the first second-year students to get to be a vice president,” says Nasrallah. “We went back 10 years and we couldn’t find anyone who had done it in their second year. Usually it’s fourth- or fifth-year students who become VPs at the association.”
“He’s interested in everything,” says Ross. “He spent many, many hours with me when he first arrived at the student association because he had so many questions. He wanted to understand the association, he wanted to understand the university and he wanted to ask questions about our community and beyond.”
Now he’s serving his second term as VP of Student Affairs, and he’s also the Deputy of Student Affairs for Enactus, a role that’s allowed him to do something that he loves—welcoming newcomers and helping them adjust to life in Canada.
He was involved in welcoming and inviting Syrian newcomers to two events in 2016. The first was a football game in September, and the other was a hockey game in March. Nasrallah was instrumental in reaching out to Syrian newcomers and inviting them to the games. At the hockey game, Nasrallah got to translate the SMU president’s speech into Arabic, from centre ice, for all the student newcomers.
“He was key to that whole operation,” says Ross. “He was on national television, and it got picked up right across the country. He was an ambassador who represented not just the university, but also Halifax.”
“I see Ossama helping students day in day out,” says Robert. “Students that come from different areas and they’re homesick. He’s willing to open his arms and give them advice on what helps him. He’s a very vibrant, kind person, and I think he really brings out the best in everyone.”
Nasrallah says that the desire to help newcomers to Canada comes naturally.
“I’m from Lebanon, and we have a big percentage of Syrians in Lebanon,” he says. “We feel what they are feeling, and what’s going on with their country. So, when they are here and we see ourselves and how we can help and yes, I can speak their language and yes, I have the university and a good network and I can do stuff for them, why don’t I help them? I’ll do whatever I can to help them.”
Nasrallah credits his easy adjustment to getting involved, and that’s his advice for other international students. He says SMU provides lots of support through their International Centre, and there are plenty of events designed to help international students get to know each other, their campus, and their community.
“Students need to try their best to realize, ‘I’m here by myself but there are lots of other people who are here by themselves too,’” says Nasrallah. “When I was with the International Centre, I would teach the students, ‘Don’t be shy, just say hi.’ So, getting involved is the key, I believe. It’s the key to opening many different doors for a student.”
He also recommends that international students “get out of their comfort zone,” by learning from other people, developing an understanding of Canadian culture, and joining societies.
According to Robert, this approach gave Nasrallah a surrogate family within the SMUSA executive team. “I think we definitely became like a family,” she says. “Cathie is like his mother and I would consider him like a brother. We confide in each other when things got tough and we use each other as a support network.”
When the going gets tough
The mental health of international students has become an important focus, since their lack of support network and family members can leave them vulnerable. Both Dalhousie University and SMU have plenty of options for students who feel like they need a little extra help.
If you’re a student at Saint Mary’s University, contact The Counselling Centre for services like personal counselling, academic and life skills coaching, and peer support. To learn more, call 902-420-5615 or visit
If you’re a student at Dalhousie University, contact Dalhousie Counselling and Psychological Services for personal counselling and access to an online self-help program called WellTrack. Call 902-494-2081 or visit dal.ca/campus_life/health-and-wellness/counselling.html.