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Life as an international student in Canada meant crushing poverty. But it also taught me resilience

This First Person article is written by Gideon Christian, who lives in Calgary. For more information about First Person stories, see the FAQ.

Two weeks into my studies, I stopped by the graduate admission office at the University of Ottawa to check on the status of my funding application. 

The funding was critical. I told the university when I applied that I couldn’t study without financial support. The admin assistant looked at me from her desk with sympathy as she told me I was turned down.

Stunned, I choked back the tears.

And that’s when I realized my Canadian studies were going to be much, much more difficult than I imagined.

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Humble beginnings

I grew up in a low-income family in northern Nigeria. My dad ran a small business and my mum was an elementary school teacher. That meant I didn’t have any political connections to leverage and only top-notch grades could get me into university.

But I did it, studied law and was called to the bar. Still, I wanted more. I wanted to be a university professor and, because I lacked political connections, I believed I needed the cachet of a foreign degree to get me there.

A group of people wearing white wigs and lawyer robes sit in auditorium.
Gideon Christian, third from the right, on the day he was called to the bar in Nigeria. He says he needed to study abroad if he become a university professor. (Submitted by Gideon Christian)

That’s why I applied for the master’s of law program at the University of Ottawa. I made it clear in my application that I would not be able to study without funding. So in 2006, when I got my admission letter, which stated the funding decision is pending, I was optimistic.

I bought my plane ticket, found a place to stay and even started classes. Then I got the heartbreaking news.

Without funding, my savings vanished. I could barely afford food. I turned to the student federation food bank for breakfast cereal, canned soup and apples, and started volunteering there to give back. By the fourth month, I could no longer pay for my one-room basement unit. I was weeks away from being homeless.

A food bank flyer with a row of smiling student faces at the bottom.
As Gideon Christian’s savings vanished, he turned to the food bank for help and volunteered there to give back. He was featured in this flyer in 2006. (Submitted by Gideon Christian)

Then one Sunday morning, as I attended my regular religious service, I saw a familiar face leaving the building. Struggling to remember how I knew him, I yelled his name anyway.


He was a high school mate from Nigeria. We hadn’t seen each other in 16 years but after introducing me to his young family, they offered me a room in their house for four months.

Homelessness averted.

I felt so grateful for their kindness. But despite their help, my dwindling finances took a toll on me, and I felt my sense of self-worth slipping away. I once thought I was a brilliant student, but poverty caused me to doubt myself, even though I continued to excel in my studies in Canada. I became reluctant to even comment in class. 

Still, I didn’t give up because that would have meant giving up my dream.


After two semesters at university, I qualified for a work permit. A lack of “Canadian experience” meant I couldn’t get a job as a legal assistant with local law firms, so I began working for $10/hour as a cleaner in a downtown hotel.

While I balanced working and studying, I struggled to get help from the university. I sent emails to my program director pleading for a research assistantship position. I never got a response. So I showed up at his office uninvited. He scowled, but sent me to a professor who finally gave me the chance I needed — a 30-hour paid research assistantship and what turned out to be a life-long mentorship. 

Prof. Amir Attaran was generous with this time. He saw my potential, gave great feedback and helped restore my sense of self-worth. My life began to change dramatically.

I finished my master’s degree and got an internship with a Canadian crown corporation. Then, with Prof. Attaran’s support and encouragement, I started a PhD in law and secured $135,000 in external grants even after the university admission committee initially turned me down.

Two men in black and red robes grin for the camera. One is holding a certificate.
Gideon Christian, right, with his mentor Prof. Amir Attaran during his graduation with a doctor of philosophy of law from the University of Ottawa. (Submitted by Gideon Christian)

Eventually, I worked as a lawyer with the Department of Justice and today, I have my dream job, working as a law professor at the University of Calgary and helping to attract more bright scholars of African descent to Canada through a new charity, the African Scholars Initiative.

Looking back, I’d say my immigrant journey was an incredibly difficult experience. It taught me how crushing poverty can be psychologically and I try to watch for that in other international students. But it also taught me resiliency and appreciation for the generosity of strangers who showed up at exactly the right time. I’d never be where I am today without them.

Telling your story

As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary has been running in-person writing workshops to support community members telling their own stories. This workshop was held at the Nicholls Family Library.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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