A Red River College grad is giving back to her adopted hometown by helping recent arrivals to Winnipeg — just like she was helped 12 years ago.
A 2010 graduate of RRC’s Community Development/Community Economic Development program, Catherine Biaya knows how it feels to be in an unfamiliar city with nothing to her name but her clothes and her family. The challenges that come with moving to a new home and adapting to a new culture would feel overwhelming to anyone — but are especially so to those coming from a war-torn country.
Biaya and her family first moved to Winnipeg in 2007 as government-sponsored refugees after they were forced to flee to Uganda from their homeland in the Democratic Republic of Congo when war erupted across the nation.
After two years in Winnipeg, Biaya decided she wanted to go to school, and enrolled in RRC’s Community Development/Community Economic Development program (now called Social Innovation and Community Development).
Biaya said she was attracted to the College by its culture and course timeline.
“Going to the university, taking four years, five years, would not be beneficial — would be too demanding,” she explains.
While at RRC, Biaya had to handle numerous obstacles, from teaching methods that differed from those she was used to in Africa, to learning how to use PowerPoint for the first time. She credits her teachers and classmates for helping her adapt to these challenges.
“I would stay after school, tell them ‘I didn’t understand it very well, could you explain it to me?’” says Biaya.
“They would sit with me, summarize it, explain it. It really helped.”
The supportive environment was further enhanced by the classroom sizes at RRC, which are smaller compared to university lectures. Biaya says this made her more confident, especially as a non-native English speaker.
“The setting gave me the confidence that I could ask any question,” she says. “It was not intimidating.”
The support she found in the classroom — combined with her instructors’ hands-on approach to teaching — helped set her up for her final workplace practicum at Mount Carmel Clinic. The experience turned out to be exactly what she was expecting.
“I knew I would be working mostly with people, not sitting behind my desk, but interacting with different populations,” Biaya says.
Using skills she learned in her two years at RRC — like connecting with newcomers and writing proposals to work across differences — she impressed her manager enough that she was offered a position at Mount Carmel after her practicum ended. She accepted, and has worked there ever since; today, she’s a community health facilitator who helps newcomers deal with the same challenges she once faced.
While getting their starts in Winnipeg, Biaya and her family received support from a number of United Way partner agencies, among them the Community Education Development Association, which helped guide her to RRC and provided assistance as she completed her studies.
She says she remains grateful for the range of supports she received, noting she still maintains a close relationship with two of her instructors from the College.
“When I have a question, I will call one of them and say, ‘I have this meeting or [presentation]: what do you think the main point should focus on?’” she says.
The support Biaya describes is of a piece with the role she now fills at Mount Carmel, where she spends her days helping people just like her to find their way in a new city. More than a decade later, she still remembers how the College helped her thrive in Winnipeg.
“I [wasn’t] just getting a good mark,” Biaya says. “I felt confident I have a future.”
Profile by Jake Maurice (Creative Communications, 2020)