Winjoy Tiop, president of Calgary BIPOC lead tutor and mentor organization called Golden Mti. PHOTO: LISA TIOP

Winjoy Tiop and her parents faced challenges navigating high school after immigrating from Kenya to Canada. Her experiences lead her to create Golden Mti, an organization supporting high school students and their parents pursue and diversify higher education.

The organization’s main goal is to help “underserved communities in Calgary, such as BIPOC individuals and visible minorities.”  By offering free tutoring and mentoring services to Calgary’s youth while answering pressing questions from parents, Golden Mti is able to help them navigate Alberta’s high school system. 

Tiop knows higher education is not for everyone, “but there are some people who really want to make it in academia,” says Tiop. “I really wanted to help create a program to support them in making it.”

Thinking of ways to help, Tiop and co-president Nyakier Buong began getting more serious about planning Golden Mti during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

Tiop didn’t anticipate launching the organization in September. However, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in June, following George Floyd’s death, Tiop and her board members thought “this was a push for us to get support,” on social media platforms where a big portion of activism has taken place this past year.

Board members of Golden Mti consist of African women who found it important to integrate Swahili, Africa’s most popular dialect, in the organization’s name. The word “Mti” means tree, “the tree that is rooted deeply and has flourished with leaves and fruit to show for its hard work,” according to an Instagram post

For Buong, Golden Mti is hope for the success of future generations of students.

“It’s helping our people. It’s what we didn’t have.”

Due to COVID-19, weekly tutoring sessions take place on Zoom. A university student will be matched to a breakout room with around 2-5 students depending on what subject they need help on. 

“These kids know their tutors now, some of them just come in and go straight into the breakrooms, they know what is up,” says Buong.

Being a non-native English speaker in Alberta

Not knowing what challenges she would soon face, 15-year-old Tiop was eager to start at Bishop Grandin High School. Having picked her classes months prior, she was ready to open a new chapter of her life. 

Tiop lived in Calgary since she was five-years-old and met Alberta Education’s requirements to go into English 10-1 from junior high. But, once she got into high school, a school counselor placed her into an ELL class.

Thinking it was for the best, Tiop co-operated and attended the ELL class, even though her father instructed her not to. After just one lesson, Tiop knew she couldn’t stay and immediately went to one of the school’s counselors.

“This is too easy for me. I have already learned these things,” Tiop said. “Is there a way I can change to a dash two stream?” 

However, Tiop was forced to take the ELL classes to enter English 10-2 and eventually allow her to take the English dash one class she needed to qualify for university. This resulted in a tiring loop of upgrading classes during the summer when Tiop “could have just gone straight” into the courses she wanted.

But Tiop is not alone in this experience. She says many BIPOC students such as herself are put into lower streamed high school courses without being told the implications of how this will affect their chances of getting into university. 

Like Tiop, co-president Buong met the minimum requirements to join dash one math and English in Grade 10 but was discouraged from doing so. She felt as if she never got a straight answer from her past school counselors. 

“You can sense that they’re not really there for you,” says Buong.

Tiop’s early life 

Before Tiop was born, her father was rescued by the United Nations from a life as a child soldier of South Sudan. He was able to claim refugee status in Kenya, where he met Tiop’s mother. As their family grew, Tiop recalled her family getting financial help from her aunt.

“We did not have the money to support ourselves,” says Tiop. “I went to school, we barely had money for school.” 

Tiop’s school in Kenya had a competitive ranking system that consisted of the student’s test marks being publicly displayed for everyone to see. Therefore, doing well in school had always been a top priority for her.

While Tiop was still young her father immigrated to Canada. After a year of hard work while separated from his family, Tiop’s dad sponsored her and her mother to immigrate to Canada and reunite in Calgary.

Tiop’s father was interested in Alberta’s school system and pushed her to pursue dash one classes.

“Back home it was just math, science, English with no streams. It’s just a confusing system here.”

Winjoy Tiop

However, that plan fell through when the school system put Tiop in English Language Learner classes at Bishop Grandin, which is part of the Calgary Catholic School District.

Asked for their response to that incident, a spokesperson for the school district, Sandra Borowski said, “we take these matters very seriously as students are the centre of our work.” 

To ensure the success of each student, schools provide many tests to assess where students are at to ensure a “positive learning experience that is differentiated at each student’s level of learning,” Borowski said.

Those tests include having junior high students whose second language is English complete a language proficiency test prior to entering high school. Depending on the results, according to the district, students are then placed in an ELL class if needed.

Tiop says she doesn’t recall any such test and believes she was added to the class by a counselor from Bishop Grandin. Nor is she alone in struggling with Alberta’s school system. 

Tiop said her close friend, Buong “came in from low dashes and streams of courses and she found a way to get back up but it was a struggle” — especially since Buong’s parents had no prior knowledge of how high school courses worked in Alberta. 

Alberta’s high school system consists of many streams for most subjects, this can present a problem for many first-generation students and parents who are unfamiliar with how it works and what students need for higher education. 

“They’re not realizing that some of these kids have parents in which English is their third language,” Tiop says. “Back home it was just math, science, English with no streams. It’s just a confusing system here.”

Although a student only needs English 30-2 to graduate from high school, most programs at the University of Calgary require a student to have completed English 30-1, potentially holding them back. 

University life 

As the result of a complicated high school system for non-native English speakers, Tiop said underrepresentation can be found in places such as the U of C, especially in its STEM fields. For a country that prides itself for being a cultural mosaic, Canadian universities don’t “reflect the world outside as of yet,” Tiop says.

The University of Calgary’s auditoriums are able to fill up a room of 300 students. But, in Tiop’s experience as a chemistry major, “there are only like two Black students. A majority of the time it is usually a black guy in STEM programs — it’s ridiculous.”

Currently in her third year, Tiop still finds herself to be the only Black girl in her chemistry labs.

“You just feel out of place,” says Tiop. “Obviously, there are other girls there, but you just feel like you can’t relate.” 

“…I really want it to reach all races in U of C so that when you look around you see everybody — looking in it would truly represent that Canada is a cultural mosaic.”

Winjoy Tiop

After doing a little digging of her own, Tiop realized there was generally a lack of Black students on campus and not just in STEM.

A study done by Statistics Canada in 2016 found that less than 30 per cent of Black women and men between the ages of 25 – 59 have “attained a university certificate, diploma or degree at bachelor level or above.”

Tiop also started seeking insight from her own Southern Sudanese community by asking her peers why they did not pursue higher education. 

She received similar answers of not getting the pre-requisites, having to upgrade or genuinely just feeling too behind and defeated. That was the case Tiop’s close family friend, who ended up dropping out of upgrading courses because she felt too drained and defeated having to start from the very bottom.

Tiop also questioned their parents to see if they were able to help out in any way while their children were picking their high school courses. Their answers pointed to a lack of communication between parents and their children’s schools.

Tiop says Golden Mti caters to Black students but “we are open with other races joining, tutoring as well because obviously, we all face the same issues.”

“At the get-go we wanted to start small and branch out later on,” Tiop says. “When it branches out, I really want it to reach all races in U of C so that when you look around you see everybody — looking in it would truly represent that Canada is a cultural mosaic.”