Scholarships help young scholar achieve her dreams
September 7, 2017
New country, new expectations and a new reality.
Making the adjustments in a new society wasn’t going to be easy, but Dr. Sandra Dixon committed to doing whatever it took to assimilate in her new environment and be very successful after migrating from Jamaica nearly two decades ago for better opportunities.
The youngest of nine siblings joined the University of Lethbridge’s Faculty of Education last year as a new tenure track assistant teaching in both the Master of Counselling and Master of Education programs.
It has been a tedious journey filled with pain, tears and sacrifice for Dixon who was brought to Canada by a family member who adopted her.
“That was an opportunity not only to help my family but also my community and other immigrants who might share my story of socio-economic dislocation and fragmentation,” she said. “That was why I didn’t take it lightly.”
Like most immigrants, she found the transition very challenging.
“It was a huge adjustment leaving family and friends behind and what you are familiar with,” Dixon recalled. “I felt isolated, but my Christian faith helped me through that trying period.”
She also learnt quickly that her new classmates weren’t quite accommodating.
“In Jamaica, you raised your hand and stood up in class when the teacher asked a question,” the St. Mother Teresa Catholic Academy graduate said. “When I did that here, the students started laughing and a few of them even went so far as to say, ‘she just come off the boat’. It was tough.”
The church and library were Dixon’s sanctuary.
“‘I never went to movies, I didn’t attend prom and I didn’t have a social network,” she said. “I went to the library every day after school and I spent Sundays at church from morning until night. When I wasn’t doing those things, I would be working at McDonald’s which is a job I started in Grade Nine just after arriving in Canada.”
In her final year of high school in 1998, Dixon was introduced to the U of T’s Faculty of Medicine Summer Mentorship Program (SMP) designed to offer a focus for students with both an interest and aptitude for the sciences, particularly for those who otherwise would not have available mentorship opportunities.
She job-shadowed with orthodontist Dr. Anthony Mair and Dr. Anna Jarvis who taught at the University of Toronto and created, implemented and supervised The Hospital for Sick Children paediatrics department’s clinical fellowship program in paediatric medicine for 13 years.
In Dr. Miriam Rossi and Diana Alli who helped co-found the SMP in 1994, she found caring and helpful mentors.
“Being exposed to that program was a life-changing experience for me,” Dixon said. “This is an amazing program that should continue because it has empowered many young people in the community from non-dominant groups such as me.”
Retired teacher Kathleen Westmaas encouraged Dixon to apply to the SMP.
“Sandra was a quiet student and, generally, those students are bypassed because they don’t make waves,” said Westmaas who went on to become a York District Catholic School Board principal before retiring two years ago. “Very smart and intelligent, I could see that she had a backbone of steel and was extremely determined to succeed. She is someone that once their name is mentioned, her face pops up in front of me. I will always remember Sandra for her loving spirit and steely determination. There was no doubt in mind that she would not only be good, but very good at whatever she chose to do.”
Determined to pursue higher education, Dixon pursued every bursary and scholarship opportunity.
Scarborough-Rouge River Member of Provincial Parliament Raymond Cho helped her secure a $2,000 Korean Canadian Scholarship Foundation Award in 2003 when he was the councillor for her riding and, had it not being for a $14,000 Harry Jerome scholarship, Dixon might not have been able to complete her undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Guelph.
“I was almost kicked out in my last year because I didn’t have the money to pay my tuition,” she said. “I will never forget the day I went to financial services and was asked if I had any assets to sell. When I said I didn’t, I was told I would have to drop out of school, find a job and then come back when I had the funds. The only thing I had with me that day was faith and I prayed.”
Dixon’s prayers were answered.
In 17 years up until, 2014, she was the recipient of nearly $23, 400 in grants, awards and scholarships from various sources, including the Sisserou Cultural Club, Global Kingdom Ministries, Utopia Lodge, and the Jamaican Canadian Association in Alberta, the University of Guelph and the University of Calgary.
“I got student loans, but they weren’t enough and I didn’t have family to turn to get the supplanting funds,” said Dixon. “That was why I was always on the lookout to financial awards for school.”
She completed her Master’s in counselling & psychology at the Adler Graduate School of Psychology and worked as a counsellor and life skills facilitator with the Malvern Youth Employment program and program facilitator with the Malvern Family Resource Centre’s Women’s Place developing life skills workshops and implementing computer training programs for newcomers to help them adjust to their new environment.
In 2011, Dixon returned to the classroom to pursue her doctorate at the University of Calgary Werklund School of Education.
Her doctoral research supervisor was Dr. Nancy Arthur whose research focuses on investigating how professionals adapt to shifting roles and responsibilities in a global context and how they engage in social justice through professional practice.
“She saw me for who I am and supported my research and scholarly interests to pursue an area of research that can be viewed as a contentious faith tradition,” Dixon said. “The Pentecostal faith is often misrepresented, misunderstood and misperceived in various mainstream psychology literature. She never hindered my growth in any way, but always tried to encourage me to pursue my passion and not to be ashamed of taking wise risks even when such risks in research might appear unconventional. Had it not being for her authentic support of my personal and professional development, I would not have been able to complete my doctoral degree in unprecedented time.”
With an interest in enhancing her counselling competency as a provisional psychologist in Alberta, Dixon completed a post-doctoral fellowship in professional psychology at the University of British Columbia after a pre-doctoral internship at the same university.
She said her supervisor in both programs, Dr. Kirk Beck, was very approachable and supportive of her clinical growth and advancement.
Dixon joined the University of Lethbridge Faculty of Education last fall.
She feels blessed to be part of an academic community where the faculty and staff are welcoming and sincerely supportive of her growth and development.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people who has helped to cultivate a sense of community and a culture that fosters high professional standards and ethical responsibility to both staff and graduated students,” Dixon added.