From an interview with Film Vachiravuttanon, Customer Operations Manager, Arrive.
Film Vachiravuttanon was born and raised in Thailand. Growing up, she was very busy with ballet and piano, but the summer she turned sixteen she did not have plans, so she and her parents discussed the option of travelling. While visiting a book fair in Bangkok in 2008, they saw booths advertising international study opportunities. This appealed to Film’s sense of adventure and she signed up for summer camp in Canada. Film shares her story of learning English, adapting to Canadian culture, studying in Canada, facing adversities alone, finding a career, and building a new life here.
When I was sixteen, I came to Canada to attend a summer camp for international students in Truro, Nova Scotia. It was the first time I had traveled outside of Thailand, and I met people from Mexico, Germany, Portugal, Brazil and beyond. I loved it. It was very diverse and a huge culture shock. As an English as a second language (ESL) camp, all the students were non-English speakers learning English together. There was a lot of miming as we tried to communicate with each other which was fun.
As an international student in a foreign country, you tend to gravitate to people from your country because they speak your language. But that wasn’t an option for me, so I had to trust myself and learn English quickly.
I love to read. So, I forced myself to pick up books in English. I had two copies of Harry Potter–one in Thai and one in English–that I read at the same time. I also watched movies in English with subtitles. Both of these helped me pick up the language quickly and the camp counselors asked if I would like to come back to continue high school in September. I did!
After returning home to Thailand, I had one month to get my visas and everything else I needed in order. I came back to Canada in September and completed grade 11 in a small town in Cape Breton. It was a little too small for my liking, so when I returned for grade 12, I lived in Halifax. That’s where my true love for Canada began.
The high school experience here was like what I had seen in Hollywood movies–kids walking through the halls chatting and going to their lockers. Everyone was so much more relaxed here compared to Thai schools, and the kids were so independent. It was cool. Many students also had part-time jobs, which wasn’t common back home. Coming from an Asian country, I found the education system and culture to be very different in Canada.
Feelings of isolation and seasonal depression
One of the biggest challenges for me was being away from my family. We are very close, and with no Thai community in Halifax, I felt isolated. After school I would just go home. I started to retreat into myself and became introverted, which was unusual for me because I have always been a very active and extroverted person. My parents and I had Skype on all the time even if no one was on the other line. Just knowing the line was open, and anyone could walk by at any moment, gave me comfort.
I also developed seasonal depression, which I didn’t even know existed. During the winter, I would feel very depressed, which was confusing at first because no one ever talked about it. I eventually learned seasonal depression is cyclical and my research about mental health really helped. Now, every winter season, I do little things to give me a boost and add a little happiness to my life.
Life changes: high school to university to a career in Toronto
In grade 12, when everyone around me started applying for university, I did as well. With my parents’ support, I applied to all the universities in Atlantic Canada, and was accepted at all of them. I chose to attend Dalhousie University’s International Development Studies program.
At university, I felt like I was stepping into adulthood and had a greater sense of purpose. I rented an apartment off campus with a fellow student (which was less expensive than living in residence), and focused on studies, as well as finding myself. I knew I would eventually have to decide whether to stay in Canada or move home.
In my last couple of years at university, I volunteered at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax and fell in love with the industry. It got me thinking about my career goals and building a life in Canada. I researched the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and decided “this is what I want to do.” My next adventure would be in Toronto.
I didn’t have a job lined up in Toronto, which wasn’t very smart. At the time, there were limited resources for me to learn about the job market in Toronto. I had just graduated with no real job experience and my parents were no longer supporting me. But I was feeling adventurous! I found a rental apartment on Kijiji and started my job search. I gave myself one year to thrive in Toronto. If it didn’t work out, I’d go back to Thailand. (Spoiler alert: I’m still here.)
During my first couple of weeks in Toronto, I visited a Thai restaurant. The manager recognized I was from Thailand and offered me a job as a hostess. That was my first job in Toronto and I needed the money, but I quickly realized it was not right for me.
Every day I submitted resumes on LinkedIn, Indeed, and Monster. I applied for a job with TIFF and was offered a six-month unpaid internship. I wanted the role so badly, but turned it down. I needed money to survive and refused to ask my parents to support me for another six months.
My online resumes did pay off. A recruiter offered me a receptionist position. I wanted to get my foot in the door, so I said yes. I worked my way up to the role of customer service manager, overseeing a team of four people and making important connections.
When my manager moved to Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) she reached out to me and asked if I was interested in joining the RBC Ventures team. I was hired as an office manager, and later offered a role as executive assistant to 2 vice presidents. I said yes, because I will never say no to learning something new. After six months, I moved to Operations and People Experience, where I became the go-to person for everyone in the office.
I noticed gaps in the way new hires were onboarded and asked if I could do something about it. I got the go ahead and I’m proud to say that I created the onboarding program that is used today at RBC Ventures. Since 2020, I have personally onboarded over five hundred people.
From helping employees to helping newcomers
I recently joined RBC Venture Arrive as customer operations manager which offered new opportunities for career growth. I have been working on all things employee-facing for the last four years and I missed that external customer side. I especially love what Arrive does for newcomers and the resources that we offer them.
I wish this resource had been available when I came to Canada to study. I cannot stress enough how helpful the articles on Arrive are. My sisters are considering coming to Canada for postgraduate studies, so I send them articles and webinars from Arrive as I read them.
Film’s top 5 tips for studying or starting out in Canada
1. Do your research
The more prepared you are for every scenario or outcome, the better. There are more resources available now than when I came to study in Canada, so I was doing research in real time: What’s a post graduate work permit (PGWP), and what’s the difference between that and another work permit? I didn’t know I could have applied for Permanent Residency (PR) three years before I actually did. Because you can do so much research before leaving home, be sure to have a basic plan.
2. Have a support system in place
Your time away from home can be quite isolating, especially if you’re an international student. You’re alone and all your family and friends are back home. Stay connected with your family and make sure you can call someone if you need to talk. Of course, each family is different. I know international students who didn’t have the same family support I had, and they felt even more isolated and lonely here.
3. Get out of your comfort zone
One of the biggest fears you might have as an international student is that you’ll be judged unfairly because your English language skills are not 100 percent. But I never experienced someone being rude or impatient because of the way I spoke. So, I encourage you to branch out and make new friends (Canadian friends, too!)
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
When I started university in Halifax, there was no Thai community to turn to, and student centers did not have the same resources available today. I felt intimidated and didn’t know what to do or where to go. But I eventually realized anyone can help you if you ask. I spoke to professors about my situation and they’d suggest resources I hadn’t considered. So, don’t be afraid to just talk to people. Canadian students, and people in general, want to help you succeed. Ten times out of ten I find people here to be more helpful and patient than you might expect.
5. Understand the power of coffee chats
Starting a new role at a new company can be intimidating. You’re learning new ways of doing things and getting used to a new environment and corporate culture. And with remote work, it can be even tougher. Reach out to people and introduce yourself. You can say, “I want to grab 15 minutes of your time to introduce myself and get to know a little bit about you.” I’ll bet no one turns you down. The connections you make and the things that you can learn through these coffee chats (even virtual ones) are so powerful.
Looking forward to becoming Canadian
I recently married a Canadian so my life will be in Canada for the foreseeable future, which is great. I love Canada and I’m a huge advocate for this country. I wish I could tell all Canadians how lucky they are to live here. I got my Permanent Residency (PR) in 2017 and am in the process of getting my Canadian Citizenship. After 10 years of being alone in a foreign country and away from family and friends, obtaining my citizenship here is my “I’ve made it” moment.
I hope to start a family in Canada, and maybe bring my family over. My parents have visited me several times and they love it here, as well. I recently read an article on Arrive on how to help your parents or grandparents to come to Canada. I sent the article to my sister in Thailand and said, “Please translate this for mom, and see what she thinks.” My ultimate goal is to own a property here so my family can have a second home in Canada and stay with me for a while.