One Ryerson Student’s Quest To Find Identity In Community

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Claudia Sanchez-Jara, a 4th-year Sociology student at Ryerson, is building a sense of community on campus as a Latinx Community Lead at Ryerson’s Tri-Mentoring program.

By: Fiona Lam

When Claudia Sanchez-Jara started university at Ryerson four years ago, she quickly found herself involved as an active member of the commuter community, a group that jointly participates in the solitary daily routine of spending time only in class, in transit, or at home. This isolating culture left Claudia longing to connect with a real on-campus community of peers on a matter much closer to her heart: her Latinx identity.

Latinx refers to people of Hispanic or Latin descent who may or may not speak Spanish. It is an inclusive umbrella alternative for the traditional gendered terms Latino (masculine) and Latina (feminine).

Although Claudia was born in Canada, she grew up close to her Chilean roots. When her parents chose to leave the dictatorship in Chile, they immigrated to Canada but resolutely continued Chilean traditions in their household. Claudia learned Spanish as her first language and grew up celebrating Chilean holidays such as Fiestas Patrias with traditional food like empanadas and extravagant decorations. This rich upbringing imbued Claudia with a deep connection to her cultural identity. Throughout her life, however, she struggled to meet peers in school who shared the same Latinx identity.

When she experienced the same difficulty at Ryerson, Claudia sought to create a group for Latin American students to meet in order to cultivate a greater sense of belonging on campus. At the end of her first year, she discussed the idea with Jennifer Gonzales, now Executive Director of Student Affairs at Ryerson. Jennifer saw immense value in Claudia’s proposition and introduced her to Jennifer Barcelona, manager of the Tri-Mentoring Program (TMP), an initiative that offers different mentorship opportunities to all students. This would become a pivotal moment in her undergraduate career.

From left to right: Jennifer Barcelona, Claudia Sanchez-Jara, and Maricruz Rodriguez (Mentoring Facilitator at TMP and Claudia’s current supervisor who also identifies as Latinx)

Within a week, she was offered a position as the Latinx Community Lead. “When I got the opportunity to work at TMP, it felt like a gift. I didn’t see it coming and it all happened so quickly. My whole university experience changed,” reminisced Claudia. In her new role, Claudia began to host monthly events that invited students who identify as Latinx to have open conversations about their identities, share how it affects their student life, and meet other Latinx peers.

“When I got the opportunity to work at TMP, it felt like a gift. I didn’t see it coming and it all happened so quickly. My whole university experience changed.”

During her first year as an undeclared arts student, Claudia had trouble finding an area of study she truly cared about. She had developed a faint interest in sociology because “it relates to real-life issues—what’s happening in the world, how we can create change through social justice,” as Claudia remarked. But it was her TMP work that affirmed the value she saw in studying the culture of communities and social relationships. Sociology gave Claudia a lens to critically understand the real-life experiences she and her Latinx peers encounter, bringing a new intimate meaning to the theories about identity, cultures, and communities she explores in class. “What I learn really does apply to what I experience in my day-to-day life and everyone else’s experiences,” said Claudia.

“What I learn really does apply to what I experience in my day-to-day life and everyone else’s experiences.”

At a recent Latinx event, Claudia hosted an activity called ‘Identity Signs’, an exercise that sparks discussion around identity-related prompts such as “what identity do you identify with most/least?” and “what identity do you think is most misunderstood by others?”. As they began exploring these questions, Claudia witnessed a rare learning experience come to life: people began to see in their personal experiences the real-life impact of frameworks they learned in class as they applied concepts like racism and classism to their conversations.

“When we do identity exploration activities, people start to really think about themselves, who they are as a person, their roles in society, and what they can offer,” reflected Claudia. The variety of knowledge and perspectives each student brought from their unique fields of studies produced a feast of ideas they could all learn from, feel inspired by, and absorb to satisfy the appetite of their curious minds. These delectable conversations opened Claudia’s mind to the multitude of experiences and perceptions people have despite carrying the same identity as her.

Claudia was the recipient of the Hispanic/Latino Award at Ryerson in her first year. She is pictured here giving a speech on what this award means to her and how it has positively impacted her university experience.

Claudia’s thirst for learning shined through as she enthused over a cool fact she learned in her Sociology of Food and Eating class. Although it was unrelated to her work or career goals, Claudia remarked that “every educator has something to offer. Every class that I’ve attended, I’ve learned something new.” This receptive mindset was encouraged by her first-year Sociology professor who reminded Claudia—as she shared her uncertainties about pursuing Sociology—that “whatever she chooses, she will learn something from it.” Claudia carries this open-minded curiosity to her TMP Latinx events where she actively listens to other’s stories and opens her mind to hearing different opinions and learning new ideas.

“Every educator has something to offer. Every class that I’ve attended, I’ve learned something new.”

Outside of her TMP efforts, she also participates in its other mentorship programs as a peer-to-peer mentor for a 1st-year Sociology student and a career mentee of a professional in the film and television business, an industry Claudia aspires to break into when she graduates in 2021. “My passion is to create and help embrace more inclusive stories with Latinx characters on screen because I never identified with many characters growing up or saw them as the main characters,” said Claudia, “I want to bring more positive stories that include more diverse representations.” She is already helping her peers catch sight of their own lives from alternate angles. We can only anticipate how Claudia’s future career in the film industry will help us see the world and its people, even familiar ones, in new ways.

Fiona Lam is the Associate Digital Marketing Analyst at Pearson Canada.

Follow Pearson Canada (@pearsoncanada) on Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook, and Instagram.

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