From an interview with Alexandria Onyedika, Assistant Branch Manager Advisor, RBC Meeting Place, Edmonton.
Alexandria always wanted to be a banker. In Nigeria, she studied accountancy and, after university, landed her first job in banking. In 2011, Alexandria’s husband came to Canada to study, and a year later, she and their three children joined him. Their goal was to get back into their respective careers in a welcoming, peaceful society where their children could have a good education and a brighter future. They ended up in Edmonton, Alberta, by way of Montreal, Quebec. Her story is one of opportunity, the kindness of strangers, achieving goals and paying it forward at RBC Newcomer Meeting Place, where she helps people who are starting out on the very journey she has taken.
This has been quite a journey. My husband is a great researcher and looked into all aspects of our move. He has an electrical engineering background in the oil and gas industry, so Alberta sounded perfect. It’s also English speaking (we don’t speak French in Nigeria), so we decided to settle in Edmonton, Alberta, where my husband would go to school. But a funny thing happened along the way.
In order to register for a university program in Canada, my husband needed to get a transcript of his Nigerian degree sealed and mailed from his university there. During the conversation in the registrar’s office, there was a mix up in the mailing address. Instead of Concordia University of Edmonton, the transcript went to Concordia University Montreal! My husband didn’t realize the error until it was too late. It was a big mistake – a very funny one – and we decided then and there to stick with the unexpected plan to go to Montreal first. That is how our journey began.
In the fall of 2011, my husband started his graduate studies at Concordia University in Montreal, and we joined him a year later. As a spouse of an international student, I was entitled to a work permit. I worked hard to find a job in a bank, but I didn’t know yet how to go about getting back into my field. First of all, I didn’t speak French – in Montreal, you need to be bilingual – and secondly, I didn’t know what certification or exams I might need.
So I got a job in a call centre for nine months while he completed his schooling. We knew no one, and it was a difficult time for my husband as an international student, now with his wife and three young children. But I thank God for our time in Montreal: we met some amazing people, I think of them as living angels.
People you meet can change your life
When we registered our eldest child at the elementary school in Montreal, we were greeted so warmly by the woman working in the administrative office. She knew we had just arrived, and when she saw that we were from Nigeria, she told us that her husband was Nigerian. She said, “Hey, you know what? I would like you guys to meet my husband.” She invited us to our first family dinner in Canada.
When we arrived at Auntie Sandra’s door that evening, the first thing she noticed was my shoes. And she screamed, “Alexandria, are you telling me these are the shoes you wore on this cold winter evening?” She quickly went to her wardrobe and got a brand new pair of boots that she said she bought for herself that didn’t fit her.
I will never forget that gesture. It meant so much to us, and they remained family to us throughout our stay in Montreal. She guided us, telling us what to do and how to do it: She was like a guardian angel. A classmate of my husband’s heard that we were without a car and gave him a gift of a bicycle. That bicycle became my car, my helicopter, my jet: I would do my grocery runs with it. We adapted from being a family with two vehicles back home in Nigeria to a no car, no income family, and that bicycle was our ride.
After my husband graduated in 2013, we headed off to Alberta, which was actually our dream destination.
“I always say, don’t let any situation define who you are, and don’t let anything deter you or discourage you. As a newcomer, you’ve already taken that bold step. You’ve taken the risk of leaving the comfort of your home to be here. You might as well continue to take risks to reach your goal.”
There will be challenges in Canada. It’s what you do with the challenge that matters.
My husband had just graduated, and we were both looking for jobs. I heard about an RBC Banking Career Fair. The challenge was that two of our kids were still too young for school, and we couldn’t afford daycare yet. So, as my husband left on that cold winter morning in search of a job, I said to myself, “The worst thing I can get is a no. I’ll go ahead and bring the kids to the career fair.”
I took my little ones and got on the bus, and headed off to RBC Career Fair. My youngest was barely one year old, so she was in her stroller, and my other child tagged along. When we got to the RBC branch that was hosting the career fair, an RBC staffer greeted us. He looked at me with two little kids and said, “I’m sorry, ma’am. We have a lot of people today. We can call you back next time RBC has a career fair.”
I knew that it was bizarre to come for an interview with two kids, but I was so determined to make it because I didn’t have a choice. I called him by his name on the name tag and said very politely, “I am so sorry but trust me, I am a newcomer. I don’t have family or friends here, and I don’t have money to put my kids in daycare yet. If I’m able to get this job, I’ll put them in daycare. Please give me this chance.”
He looked at me, looked at my kids and said, “Okay. If you insist,” then opened the door for me. I pushed my stroller into the banking hall, and in just a few minutes, a nice older woman walked up and said, “Who is Alexandria?” I said that was me and apologized again for coming to an interview with two little kids.
She didn’t let me finish. She told me she was a grandmother and knew what I was going through. “I know what this means. And because you didn’t let this be a hindrance, I will see you to the next stage.”
She invited me into her office. I pushed the stroller in and settled the kids with their juice and biscuits on the table. She had my resume in front of her and said, “Go ahead. Tell me about banking in Nigeria.”
That was the beginning of my journey to RBC.
“I tell newcomers to think of what appears as an obstacle as a bouncing board. It’s going to bounce you up.”
RBC Newcomer Meeting Place: helping newcomers, well beyond banking
I was hired as a banking advisor and started in January of 2014. I moved from a banking advisor to a financial advisor and was looking toward a leadership role when I heard that RBC planned to open a Newcomer Meeting Place in Edmonton. I did some research and learned that there is an RBC Newcomer Meeting Place in Brampton and Markham, Ontario.
I was so happy! During those first years in the branches, I helped many newcomers as an Advisor: I guided them and directed them. I wanted to use my experience to help newcomers and remain a banker. This opportunity was a dream come true.
In my interview, one of the panelists said, “Tell me your story.” That’s all I needed. I shared my Montreal experience, the hurdles, the challenges, my RBC journey and my interview. I said, “I’m not going to help people with a textbook approach. I’m not going to help people with what I’ve learned. I’m going to help newcomers based on what I have gone through – my lived experience. All this put together landed me the role.
Our motto is “Ask us anything!” If we don’t have the answer, we’ll surely help you find it. We also have access to over 240 languages. If a newcomer walks in with limited English, we bring our language partners on the phone and do an audio or video call in their language.
Taking steps to help newcomers find their financial footing
Another thing I love about what we do is helping newcomers with the dos and don’ts of finance in Canada; it’s a big part of settling successfully: If you get your finances right from the start, you’ve solved half of your problems.
The number one topic is understanding banking in Canada because banking is different here. We’ll start with differentiating a chequing account from a savings account. Back home, some newcomers have an account called savings that they use for doing their daily transactions. But over here, your chequing account is for daily transactions. If you use your savings to do your daily transactions, you incur fees and charges.
We help newcomers understand the importance of budgeting and how to live within a budget. They may be coming from a place where you pay rent once a year to a society where you pay rent monthly. We show them a sample of a budget calculator to help make a plan: knowing when the bills are due, what’s coming in, and what is going out, and what the balance is at the end of the day.
Credit and credit score
Many newcomers don’t have credit knowledge when they come to Canada. We start with basic credit training: understanding how a credit card works, what a credit score is, and how to maintain a good credit history. Such basic credit knowledge can forestall avoidable experiences, like when a newcomer told me his car had been repossessed because he could not keep up with the loan payments.
Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP)
Much like our family, many newcomers come to Canada to build a better life for their children and come to wonder, “How can I afford their university tuition?” They may not know that with an RESP, they can save money for their kids’ post-secondary education. We walk through it with them, explaining all the parts, including government matching grants and bonds, so that in the next 17 years, they’ll look back and be thankful they opened that account.
First things first: Opening a bank account in Canada
Some newcomers will want to open an account before they arrive to get a head start on finances in Canada. We also do remote account opening at arrival. For example, while newcomers are still in quarantine, we open the accounts remotely and can do it end-to-end, allowing them to transfer their funds over to the Canadian bank account seamlessly.
We try to find ways to help newcomers save money and make their lives easier. Newcomers chat with us on LinkedIn. Check out the pre-arrival checklist. And, if you go to the RBC newcomer page, there’s a whole lot of information and resources about pre-arrival.
Dreams, goals and determination
Initially, my goal was to find a better life for myself and my family, and thank God we have that right now. My newcomer experience helped me achieve my second goal, which is using this experience to help others. I’m living out my dream of paying it forward right now, and thankfully it keeps evolving and expanding. When RBC Newcomer Meeting Place opened in Edmonton, we started off working with one newcomer agency. Now that we are virtual, we can touch the lives of newcomers anywhere.
As a newcomer, you are determined. You’re purposeful. You had a mission when you decided to come. You didn’t just wake up and leave your parents, leave your fatherland and come here. You had a goal. Something propelled you. You had a vision.
I remind newcomers not to focus on the challenges that they face along their journey. There will be challenges, and there’ll be ups and downs. It might be riding a bicycle to get groceries or shedding a tear standing with your little kids at a bus stop in the cold of Montreal because you couldn’t afford a car. The journey may seem like a tunnel, and it can be dark at times, but you should focus on your life at the end of the tunnel. One day you will look back and smile. You’ll be happy.