After Cairo, Halifax was a culture shock. Learn how one student found her place.
BY: LINA EL-SETOUHY
During the second annual Halifax Experience event, student bursary winners were announced as part of the evening’s festivities. One of the criteria for qualifying for the bursaries was to write an essay detailing the student’s Halifax experience when first arriving in the city. Over the next few issues, My Halifax Experience is printing the essays of bursary winners to shine a light on their unique perspectives of this city we think we know so well. This is the third in the series, written by Lina El-Setouhy.
Who would have thought a small city overlooking the Atlantic could have so much impact on me? I arrived in Halifax on August 7, 2013. I was in awe of the beautiful scenery and the amount of green areas I saw everywhere. I found it to be a beautiful city with the friendliest people I have ever met, but a little too small for a Cairo gal. I spent my first week in Halifax sitting at home exploring TV channels as I had made no friends yet and my siblings were always at work. I remember the very first weekend, I went to the waterfront with my sister and her friends. I remember thinking to myself, “How am I so different from everyone here? How is everybody just getting on with their life while I have no idea where I am? “I also remember how I thought to myself that I’m so far away from home, from my mom, and from my childhood friends. I felt lifeless, invisible, and like I didn’t belong. I remember going home that day and crying my heart out about how Halifax is so different from Cairo and I could never fit in or make friends because of how everyone was so different from me. After my culture-shock tears, I decided to get engaged. Back home, I was always involved in student societies and that was how I met some of my best friends.
My last student society experience in Egypt was with AIESEC at the American University in Cairo where I was the president of one of the specialized units. AIESEC provides students with volunteer and work opportunities to go on cultural exchanges abroad. I decided to reach out to AIESEC in Halifax, which was run by Dal and SMU students. I became very involved with AIESEC Halifax and became one of the vice-presidents on the executive team for two years in a row. Through AIESEC Halifax I met people from so many different places around the world with very different cultural perspectives and I enjoyed every bit of it.
During my first year at Dalhousie, I felt I was losing my future because after a week of school, my advisor told me I had to repeat two years of civil engineering I had taken in Egypt. I felt devastated and discouraged. I didn’t want to repeat engineering just because my transfer credits weren’t accepted at Dal. I mean, engineering was hard the first time! So, I switched majors from engineering to environmental science. I decided to change to environmental science because of a class I took in my first year that was taught by the most influential and inspirational professor I have ever met, Susan Gass. The class was an introductory environmental science class that explained to me many of the environmental problems affecting Egypt. I have always been curious about environmental science, but never had such an influential person explain it to me. In my second year at Dal, I took an introductory urban planning class that also affected me quite a lot. I developed a passion for learning after exploring so many different fields of study during my first and second year classes, but it made me confused. I started to want to learn more about everything around me, the environment, infrastructure, how cities are developed, the effect of humans on the environment, etc.
My passion grew even more after taking a field school class in August 2015. In that class I got a chance to explore many different and beautiful places in Halifax and Nova Scotia, including Kejimkujik National Park, Beaver Bank, Point Pleasant Park, and many more. After my adventures in learning, I realized Halifax is such a rich place for development and learning. It provides endless opportunities to learn, explore and grow. Halifax also provides a perfect setting for students, as it has endless study spots, lots of open/green space, and a waterfront that’s basically the best place to get a load off when stressed because of exams or just from life. During my third year at Dal, I ran as vice-president of events for the Dalhousie International Students Association (DISA). It supports and provides service for full-time or part-time international and exchange students. DISA has held multiple cultural events for international students of different ethnicity and has consistently added to the cultural diversity on campus through its growing connections and sponsors.
As VP of events, I worked with the Gujurati Students Association to organize the first ever Halifax Colour Festival, which turned into a huge success: a series of six cultural nights, including coordinating with six different Dal cultural societies (Pakistani Students Association, Syrian Students Association, Chinese Society, Spanish Society, Arabic Society, and the Malaysian society), an Intercontinental Soccer Tournament, Thanksgiving Dinner, the International Students East Coast Holiday Dinner, and International Night Gala. Through these events, I served food to more than 1,000 international students, representing more than 20 different cultural backgrounds, and provide volunteer opportunities to more than 100 international and local students. Moreover, International Night, which was the biggest cultural gala in Dal, was held in the World Trade and Convention Centre and showcased cultures from Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Spain, China, Japan, India, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, and more! The event was attended by more than 500 guests. On March 24, 2016, I was given Dalhousie’s Most Impactful International Student of the Year award. The award goes to an International student who has demonstrated excellence in leadership, engagement in the community, inspires others and is a respected voice for international students at Dal.
This award means the world to me, to be recognized for all my hard work and for the amount to time and sweat I put into organizing events for local and international Dal students. Now when I look back, I realize how much my life changed in just three short years. I thought I wouldn’t be able to fit in or make friends, but now I have friends in almost every country in the world. My perception on life has changed greatly. I’ve become a more open-minded and sound-minded person, who believes in herself and thinks she can accomplish whatever she puts her mind to. All of that is because of the incredible support I received from everyone I met and worked with during my time in Halifax.
I have met some of the most influential people in my life here. One person that has truly pushed me to go further and provided endless physical and emotional support was Kewoba Carter. Kewoba is an international-student advisor and orientation coordinator at Dalhousie University. A former international student herself, Kewoba graduated from Dalhousie University with a Bachelor of Arts Combined Honours in International Development Studies and English. Kewoba has literally been with me through every step in my VP events term and has given countless great advices on what to do or how to deal with tough situations. She always guided me to the right direction and owe much of my success to her.
My future plans include the Environmental Planning Honours Program to continue exploring both Environmental Science and Planning. I also intend to stay in Halifax for as long as possible, as I find it an amazing place to live and start a family in. Unlike Cairo, Halifax doesn’t suffer from terrible air and water pollution and has given me a great opportunity to connect with the environment and myself. I also like that Halifax is characterized by its walkability. I enjoy having the possibility of walking to any place I want and not having to sit in a car for hours while stuck in traffic. I hope one day my kids will get the same opportunity and to grow to love Halifax as much as I do. Life in Halifax has not been easy nor too hard. It has been an amazing, life-changing experience. I’ve grown greatly since I came here in 2013, and I intend to grow even more.