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Ramya Rangalle joins host of successful alum from Pier 21 museum

When Ramya Rangalle relocated from her native Sri Lanka to Nova Scotia with her family in 2002, she wasn’t coming here with a plethora of career opportunities waiting for her. 

“My kids were little, I had obviously been raising them,” Rangalle says. By the time those kids were older and she decided to try and return to the workforce in 2008, she had an uphill path ahead of her. She basically had to start fresh in a whole new country. 

“We were looking at what we want to do, and what my options are, because my background was mainly in education. I didn’t have a lot of work experience, but some,” she recounts. “But it’s not something that directly transfers to a Canadian work setting.” 

Alongside courses and programs offered by ISANS, Rangalle’s biggest break into the Canadian working world would be found at the Halifax museum that honoured people just like her, who immigrated to Nova Scotia seeking new fortunes. 

“We heard about Pier 21’s Welcome Home to Canada Program,” she says. “I applied as a research assistant — it was a six-month term, it was my first job [in Canada].” 

The Welcome Home to Canada Program, or WHTC for short, started in 2014, with the goal of helping newcomers integrate into the Canadian workforce, where gaps in one’s resume or lacking in any Canadian work experience can be a difficult hurdle to surmount. 

“For some, for many different reasons, it takes a long time to find employment,” Rangalle says. “When you don’t have Canadian work experience, and you don’t have a lot of understanding of how the workplace works, it becomes harder. 

“I think the intention was to provide a service to immigrants who have many types of barriers to employment. And also, to bring the history of immigration into light. This was the place where they literally took their first steps.” 

“What we wanted to do was basically ‘walk the talk,’” adds Marie Chapman, the CEO of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. She began with the organization in 1996, starting out as a volunteer. “We said look, we’re an immigration museum; we have an opportunity to hire newcomers to Canada. Because one of the most challenging things, as you know, is getting those first resumes, that first work experience in Canada, those first references. Building your Canadian resume.” 

The WHTC Program typically hosts up to 12 participants per six-month term, where they’re placed in a department of the museum in a paid position. Rangalle wound up in the Scotiabank Family History Centre, helping people research their genealogies.  

It was a tectonic change for Rangalle. 

“In Sri Lanka, all my experience was in the education sector; when you do that kind of work, you’re the one with the authority and the power,” she says. “When you work in a museum like Pier 21, you’re actually serving the public, so that kind of puts you in a humbling position. If you haven’t done that kind of work, it can be terrifying. It’s a busy, emotional place, and you have to have to be fast and quick.” 

While her credentials weren’t in human resources, Chapman says that it was Rangalle’s “unteachable” qualities that were transferable to this new role.  

“Ramya has what I would call those unteachable skills, like judgment, and the ability to manage multiple projects,” Chapman says. “She is an excellent listener. She is somebody who is incredibly professional and thoughtful. So much of that led to being really great at Human Resources. Being someone who was an alum from one of our biggest HR programs just added to the mix.” 

Less than a year after completing the WHTC program, Rangalle was given the opportunity to put those ineffable skills to work for the museum. 

“Then, Pier 21 was looking for a coordinator of the Welcome Home to Canada Program,” says Rangalle, who landed the job of not only overseeing WHTC, but the entire Human Resources department for the museum. She brings her experience with the program to help her better administrate it from the other side of the counter. “As a coordinator, I have a respect for the fear, or the hesitation, the participants would have.” 

“Ramya is one of what we call our WHTC ‘alumni,’ who works permanently at Pier 21,” Chapman says, “but she’s not the only one. There are at least, I think, four others right now — maybe five, actually — on staff right now, who came through the program. The richness that brings to us is immeasurable.” 

Chapman says the program was initially conceived as a way of doing something for newcomers, but as the need for more diversity in our workplaces has become more obvious over the years, she believes those who take the program and go on to succeed are giving back as much as they get, or more. 

“We were early beneficiaries of diversity in the workforce,” Chapman says. “What we quickly realized, as individuals, as citizens of Canada, as colleagues, is we learned so much from diverse perspectives.” 

It’s not just “alum” that have succeeded thanks to WHTC, Rangalle explains. 

“I don’t want to name names, but there are wonderful stories of people who come to the program, have done an amazing amount of work here at the museum, and then go do their own work,” she says. “Those things, we have seen how helpful they are. They say, ‘I feel a little better about my prospects, now,’ and ‘I feel more confident about how I communicate. I feel better about the next work I’ll have.’ We always target for that 70 per cent, and it has been that 70 per cent, except maybe once or twice. ” 

“I feel our program really does contribute to the growth and progress of the province,” Rangalle says, echoing the unspoken value of intangibles that Chapman saw in Rangalle herself. “Our program is able to let those employers know that, with a little bit of effort and investing in a newcomer, it’s a really great thing. Think about someone who packed up and left their home country, and decided to restart everything. That shows a lot of dedication, courage, effort, and drive. Having someone with those qualities as your employee is a good thing.” 

Chris Muise

Chris Muise is a writer/contributor for My Halifax Experience and My East Coast Experience

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