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Mary Navas went from scared newcomer to confident, successful resident of Halifax

“I remember the very first time I met Mary,” Kathryn Tector says. “We were having an event here at National Public Relations. She was still a student at Saint Mary’s University. She put out her hand to shake mine, and said, ‘Hi, I’m Mary Navas, and I’m going to work here someday.’

“I had no doubt that she would,” says Tector, vice president of strategy in the Halifax office of National Public Relations (NPR), a national communication and marketing company. “She’s smart, she’s confident, she’s entrepreneurial, and she makes people feel really welcome. She’s a powerhouse.”

Today, Mary Navas works alongside Tector as an associate in the marketing department. “I work on integrated marketing campaigns, creating communication and marketing strategies for businesses across Atlantic Canada,” Navas says. For example, she worked on the Port of Halifax campaign.

Not the Same Mary

This powerhouse is not the same Navas who arrived in Halifax from Honduras in 2015 to attend Saint Mary’s University (SMU). When she was looking around for universities, her aunt, who lives in Calgary, suggested Canada. Navas discovered SMU and Halifax.

“It’s a young, growing city with lots of universities by the water,” she says about her attraction to the place.

To her surprise, when she arrived with her parents the week before classes, she feared she had made a terrible mistake. The 20-year-old met no other Latinos and saw little diversity in her first days at SMU.

“What am I doing here?” she asked herself. “What did I get myself into? I don’t know anyone. I have no friends, no previous connections. I’m going to be by myself.”

To comfort herself and to be brave for her mom, she threw herself into preparations—shopping for residence, learning her way around campus—but she told herself she’d be going home with her mother at the end of the week. That didn’t happen.

“I remember the day she left,” Navas says. “I cried for 72 hours.” She remembers calling her parents every night for a week in tears and begging to return home. While she was fluent in English, she found it difficult to get to know other students. Canadian culture was not as open as the Honduran culture she was used to.

In addition, Navas was afraid to leave campus.

“Because I come from one of the most dangerous cities in the world—San Pedro Sula—walking outside by myself was scary. Going grocery shopping [in Halifax], I was afraid. I remember I had heart palpitations every time I walked outside.”

SMU Changed Her Mind

At last, Navas promised her parents she’d try SMU for a year. She’s never looked back. As an extrovert, she was soon making friends and finding her niche. However, she would never forget her first days in a new country, a new city, and a new school.

“SMU shaped the person I am today,” Navas says. She discovered that SMU was a culturally diverse campus after all. “I got to know so many people from many different countries.”

Early on, Navas was highly motivated to give back to her adopted home, to SMU, and most of all, to others she knew must be experiencing the displacement she felt in her first weeks. She got involved with the student association, quickly moving into the role of vice president of student affairs.

“I organized all events for orientation week when we welcome new students,” Navas says. “I helped students with their struggles, especially international students. I helped them integrate. I knew what it was like, and I wanted to bring that barrier down for people.”

In her fifth and final year, Navas was elected president of the student association. That role led to others beyond campus.

“I got to meet so many stakeholders in the provincial and federal government, in business, and at university,” she recalls. When the YMCA of Greater Halifax/Dartmouth asked her to chair its first youth advisory committee, Navas jumped at the chance.

“They were looking for a youth leader, someone involved in the community,” Navas says. She found the role suited her perfectly. “I love to serve other people. I love to serve this community. People think of the YMCA as only a gym, but it’s so much more than that. They have immigration support for families, employment support for young people, health and mental health programs.”

Pandemic Changes

Navas knew the pandemic caused mental health issues for some. She found this was particularly the case for youth, the time of life when people are coming into themselves, building character and skill sets. Because the pandemic forced youth to stay home and reduced social interaction, it had a great impact on them, she says.

“We found there was a big gap in mental health services.” Through her volunteer work, Navas is focused on helping those experiencing the impacts of the pandemic.

More Diverse Community Emerges

Giving back during this time has helped Navas feel at home in Halifax, as do the city’s changing demographics.

“I never thought I would stay where I studied. I always saw myself going to a bigger city to pursue my career. But it’s so great to see how Halifax has grown since I’ve been here. There are so many new people coming in. You’re seeing the diversity grow.”

On a recent trip back to Honduras to visit her parents, Navas says it was on the return flight that she felt like she was returning home. To thank her parents for giving her the gift of a new place to call home, she wants to return the favour.

“They’ve always come in the winter,” she says. “Tickets are more expensive in the summer, but I hope I am able to bring them here and give that gift.”

Whether it’s for her parents or her community, her dreams for the future always involve serving others. She dreams of founding a charity to give young people in Honduras and in Nova Scotia “a better education and a better future.”


Sidebar: Navas believes pandemic has led to heightened empathy

Mary Navas faced her own health and mental health issues during the pandemic. COVID-19 restrictions prevented her family from joining her at graduation. In fact, the big event happened virtually, so even celebrating with her cohort was impossible.

Around this time, her father caught COVID-19 and nearly died in an ICU. She couldn’t travel home to Honduras to be with her dad and her family. Navas tears up just talking about it.

Then she caught it herself. True to her nature, her encounter with Canada’s medical system got her thinking about the experiences of others. She says international students and immigrants are not comfortable navigating our health care system. They don’t know that calling an ambulance is expensive. They’ve never heard of walk-in clinics. They’re unfamiliar with the services emergency rooms and pharmacies offer.

“I think immigrants should be educated about how to work through the medical system,” she says.

As for her own experience, it was mostly a positive one.

“I remember being in the emergency room by myself. It was busy. I had to wait for hours, but when I got the attention from the doctors and medics, it was just what I needed. They didn’t treat me differently at all. I felt supported.”

Navas says her experience with the pandemic demonstrated that we all need to have empathy for others. “COVID shaped the whole world,” she says. “People lost loved ones and struggled with access to food and medicine. I was so lucky that my dad was able to be in a hospital. Being an international student, you notice that people in other countries are unable to have medical care. It opened my eyes more.”

Empathy for others helped Navas navigate her own mental health struggles through the pandemic. “Yes, you have to celebrate your successes, but you also have to remember that other people are going through hard times. Ask how you can be a supporter and an ally.”

As Kathryn Tector puts it, “Mary is very intentional about just checking in with people to say hi, how are you doing?”  She says it comes back to Navas’ need to ensure people feel they are part of a community.

Navas sees upsides to the pandemic as well, when it comes to taking care of ourselves and others. In the before-times, she says, people were driven to succeed. Now, she’s noticed what she calls a new vibe, one of mutual support and inclusion.

“A lot of people are happy where they are right now. They live their lives more. Everyone is appreciating the little things, enjoying those moments with family, friends, and community. It’s amazing how we saw Halifax come together to support each other.”

Darcy Rhyno

Darcy Rhyno has penned hundreds of articles on everything from Indigenous tourism to the wild horses of Sable island. He writes about travel, history, the environment, health and literature. He's published two collections of short stories, two novels, stage and radio plays, and two non-fiction books, including his most recent, Not Like the Stars At All, a memoir about life in the former Czechoslovakia.

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