From an interview with Nazanin Akhavan, RBC Newcomers Specialist Team at RBC
Nazanin Akhavan was born and raised in Iran where she completed a bachelor’s degree in economics before moving to Canada with her parents and brother in 2008. Upon arrival in Toronto, Nazanin navigated her new life by learning English, attending post-graduate studies, and starting a career at RBC where she could do what she wanted most: help people. Here she shares her journey and offers tips she learned along the way to help other newcomers build a career and life in Canada.
I moved from Iran to Canada with my parents and older brother in February 2008. My parents made the decision to move the family after a two-week trip to Canada to visit my two aunts who convinced them to move here. So after returning to Iran, they began the application process. At that time, I was just under 18 years old and it took a few years before we finally could move to Canada.
By then, I had just completed a bachelor’s degree in economics and I knew I wanted to continue my education in Canada. That meant I had to learn English. Iran’s official language is Farsi, and the second language we learn is typically Arabic, then French and English. Arriving in Canada with broken English was my biggest challenge to overcome.
Learning English at home and in Canada
I decided to apply to the Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson) for a master’s in finance and international economics, but I had to take the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test first. I needed to score a seven to be able to apply (an IELTS is graded on a scale of one to nine).
Compared to 14 years ago when I moved to Canada, Iranians today can learn English more easily before they arrive here. Now there are more platforms to learn from, as well as online courses. But 14 years ago, it wasn’t that easy. As soon as I knew I was coming to Canada, I started private English courses. But even so, it’s nothing like being in an environment where you can talk to people in conversation.
During my first year in Canada, I applied for a student job at The Hudson’s Bay Company in downtown Toronto’s Eaton’s Centre as a cashier in the Christmas department. That was actually my very first job in Canada, although it was only seasonal. I really loved my job at The Bay. It helped me a lot because I could practice my English through regular conversations with people. It was very exciting at the same time, because I got to know Canadian culture. Actually, the Christmas department at the Bay is really beautiful. We don’t celebrate Christmas in Iran, and it was exciting to see all those lights.
I passed the IELTS and began the master’s program at the Toronto Metropolitan University. But this was a challenging year for me and my family. In 2009, my father passed away due to cancer. I didn’t think I could continue with my studies, but my mom and my brother encouraged me to stick with it. My older brother was a huge support for me and my mom during this difficult time. I graduated from the program and debated between starting my career and pursuing a PhD. Although I had employment offers, none of them were at a bank, which was what I really wanted. I applied for a PhD as I continued to look for a job.
Knocking on doors to open opportunities
When I searched for a job, times were different. I actually printed 30 copies of my resume, put them in a folder, and started walking along Yonge St. dressed in my suit. I went into every bank from Finch Ave., where I lived, to Eglinton Ave. to drop off my resume. This was before LinkedIn was popular, so I don’t suggest doing this now, but it worked for me.
It wasn’t easy because I got so many rejections, but at one of the RBC branches there was a nice lady at the front desk who I still keep in touch with. She introduced me to the branch manager who interviewed me on the spot. I was offered a job there, as well as two other banks. But I knew I wanted to work at RBC. Even though I was accepted into the PhD program, I turned it down and took the job at RBC in September 2011 instead.
Networking is key to preparing for life in Canada
When I started my life in Canada, I had to learn many things the hard way. Back then, newcomers like me didn’t have great platforms like Arrive or the RBC newcomer specialist team. That’s why I really enjoy helping newcomers in my role at RBC. I put myself in their shoes. We offer what we call “beyond banking”. A newcomer may ask me anything: “how can I get my driver’s license?” or “what is the best brand for a winter jacket?”
Many people reach out to me even before they arrive in Canada. Sometimes it’s because they’re stressed out. They don’t know what to expect. So we connect by email or virtual call and I share information that calms them. I also connect with people through LinkedIn—I have around 2000 followers—where I post our webinars on many topics, such as financial literacy. People from countries around the world attend.
Networking is one of the most important things that you need to work on when you’re here. I came with no network. I didn’t know anyone except my family’s circle and I would have done things differently if I knew then what I know now. How? By using LinkedIn—a very powerful platform for networking. There are so many job opportunities in the hidden job market, as we call it, that you can only access through networking.
Set yourself up for success in Canada
I have a strategy called GPA. Set a Goal. Plan for it. Action it.
I learned this from a colleague. As newcomers, we come to a new country with a different culture and there are so many ways we need to adjust. The weather is just one thing! We want to get the most out of our lives here, so you should have a goal and plan for it and act on it. The opportunities in Canada are limitless.
Top tips for finding a job as a newcomer to Canada
1. Learn English before you arrive and don’t worry about not being perfect
You need to improve your language skills to find a job and to communicate. Don’t worry if you can’t speak English perfectly. Some people wonder, “How can I compete with Canadians? I have an accent and my English is not perfect like theirs.” That kind of thinking stops you from moving forward with your goals. Don’t compare yourself with Canadians or people who were born here. Canada encourages a diverse community.
2. Expand your network with LinkedIn
Never underestimate the power of networking. Everyone needs to have an updated LinkedIn profile. There are many features that newcomers may not be aware of, like researching a company you’re interested in and making professional connections. It’s also important to reach out to people. You can ask them to connect, as well as ask for a coffee chat or informational interview.
3. Stay positive even if you don’t get responses
To find opportunities, you need to knock on people’s doors, but now it’s not in person, but through your LinkedIn profile—it’s the same concept. Stay committed and don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a response. People are busy and you can’t expect everyone to respond. Just be consistent. If you reach out to 20 people and even one person gets back to you, that could be a huge asset for you.
4. Focus on your transferable skills, not your lack of Canadian experience
Do not worry that you do not have Canadian work experience yet. It’s all about your transferable skills and your interpersonal skills. As a newcomer, you don’t even have to pursue what you did back home. You can even change your industry. This is a country of limitless opportunities.
5. Don’t be shy, ask questions
Don’t be shy and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Some newcomers come from cultures where they’ve learned to not ask many questions because it’ll upset or annoy people. But in Canada, it’s the other way around—the more questions you ask, the more clarity you get. And the more clarity you get, the more able you are to achieve your goals, right?
What I really love about Canada is the diversity. It might take time to get to know the culture, as it did for me, but I can tell you that Canadian people are very kind and supportive. You will love it here.