Unique course brings students closer to their family migration stories

Students and professor at gallery
Professor Laura Bisaillon at the opening of her collaborative art gallery exhibit which focuses on the culture of the Horn of Africa. (Photo courtesy of Laura Bisaillon)

Anna Boyes

A U of T Scarborough course that encourages students to explore their family migration stories offers a unique point of academic entry – one that uses personal experiences as a tool to explore important questions. 

The seminar course, Special Topics in Migration and Public Health, is designed by assistant professor Laura Bisaillon of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Health and Society. It takes a unique approach to the study of immigration and migration.

“We look at the immigration system in Canada to understand how it sorts and categorizes people such that migrant lives are shaped in particular ways,” says Bisaillon.

“The labels ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’ are applied less frequently to/by people over time after they settle. How a person enters this country shapes upward mobility; backstories for a refugee are dissimilar to those for an immigrant.”

Course readings focus on migration, mobility and diaspora using autoethnography, an approach that uses personal experiences as a way to explore cultural, political and societal questions.

In many cases, the students in the course are born outside of Canada or born of immigrant parents. They used their family’s migration experience as the focus of their research. For most, this was the first time in their university career that they were able to use personal experience as a topic of academic research.

“I get my students to write in the first person. Using personal pronouns and adopting an active voice are unfamiliar practices. First-hand exposure to the Canadian immigration system makes fantastic fodder for them to explore society and their place in it. My students are studying health sciences,” says Bisaillon.

The experience had a real impact on students who opened dialogue they hadn’t considered before.

“As young people, the majority of us didn’t personally migrate from other countries but we were able to explore our migration story through our parents,” says Ayaan Abdulle, a fourth-year student double-majoring in Health Policy and Psychology. “I know a lot of us learned a lot that we didn’t know about our families and our own parents.”

Laura Bisaillon and her students at the gallery

For Abdulle, the course provided a holistic experience by focusing on the students as individuals and tying their personal experiences to course content.

For her final project, Abdulle videotaped her parents discussing their forced flight from Somalia and immigration to Canada in the early 1990’s.

“We were able to gain more from the class than just our marks,” says Abdulle. “To have [my parents] talk about their own experience was very important to me. The fact that we are able to do that in a class was absolutely phenomenal … you don’t really get those experiences in classes because it’s usually very theory based and very assessment focused.”

The small class size provided students with the opportunity to communicate easily and regularly with one another on their research topics.

“I learned a lot about my classmates and found a lot of similarities with certain students,” says Hiba Ibrahim, a fifth-year year student studying International Development studies, Critical Migration Studies and Sociology.

“For every assignment, we would have to talk about our topics and the research design. We would get feedback from other students. Throughout the course I would know what my fellow students were working on and their kind of topics and family history.”

For her final assignment, Ibrahim drew inspiration from course materials, including a reading about post-war trauma and an article chronicling the story of an immigrant’s challenges without state-issued documents. She related these experiences to her family’s story of needing to leave Somalia for Canada without official papers, which became the focus of her term paper. 

Outside of the classroom, Bisaillon continues to communicate with students and create spaces for their deeper understanding of course subject matter. Her goal is to practice “public scholarship:” showing students how learning reaches beyond the classroom, and also that research is not a static academic exercise.

To that end, Bisaillon recently exhibited an installation art piece focusing on the Horn of Africa. Ibrahim along with current and former students and their parents attended, joining the conversation.

“I aim to inspire young people to think outside the box,” says Bisaillon. “I want my students to take chances and connect the classroom with their lives so they can know how to integrate research into their daily lives.”