When Alain Obed studied in Canada, he planted a tree.
“For us, planting a tree is significant symbol. When you plant a tree, you are actually putting life into the ground. I may forget everything else, but I will not forget planting the tree that day.”
Growing up on a farm in Vanuatu, Obed was never bound by his roots. In 2017, while working as an in-house lawyer for the Vanuatu Financial Services Commission, a State Agency for the Government of Vanuatu, he completed a Master de Droit, Economie, Gestion from the french University of Toulouse 1 , he happened to hear about the programme canadien de bourses de la Francophonie (PCBF) encouraging international students to study in Canada.
“I just applied without really believing that I would be accepted. I didn’t think that I was capable.”
When he was awarded the Francophonie scholarship to study in Canada, he was surprised.
“Apart from watching TV or YouTube, I had no idea about Canada. The only thing in my mind was the snow. I said, I’m a Pacific Islander, boy – I don’t think I can survive in Canada. It’s too cold!”
At one point, he even thought about withdrawing, but a discussion with the program coordinators convinced him otherwise.
“The program director told me the last [recipient from Vanuatu] they had was in 1992. So thinking of the big picture, I thought I should go.”
Obed landed in Canada in December 2018.
“I did not prepare – I thought the weather would be fine. That’s where my nightmare started – I didn’t expect I would be freezing at the airport! I think I learned a lesson there.”
Fortunately, he was supported as he overcame the initial culture shock. The PCBF team held a week-long orientation that introduced him, and other successful applicants, to Canada. Then, they provided his ticket to travel to his university and had someone assist him with his registration on arrival.
Obed was accepted into a 6-month certificate program in E-Commerce Law at the Université Sherbrooke, a large French-language university in Southern Quebec. The university supported him to complete the program and do his research, since few students pursued the niche area of cyber law.
The program was a great fit, and Obed was able to study in French, as he did in Vanuatu until learning English as a second language in secondary school.
“Sherbrooke is a really good university. Most of us were Francophone… but it’s still bilingual, which is a good thing.”
“It’s interesting to see how English and French lawyers work things out from different perspectives. The way they look at legal issues and they way they present, it’s different.”
In French, Obed says, there is more freedom under guidance while in English it is more structured.
When asked about the university he said, “Looking at infrastructure, I was really impressed. Sherbrooke is quite advanced.”
It was also very practical, Obed said, with great professors who have a range of professional experience as well as academic knowledge.
Outside of studying, Obed attended church and spent time with other students. He still keeps in touch and often discusses current research and news with them.
“One thing I found funny is smiling is part of our pacific lifestyle but in Canada if you smile to anyone, they might think ‘is that guy crazy’?”
When asked about what he misses the most about Canada? “The Quebec poutine,” he says, “that’s the thing I really enjoyed.”
Obed recommends studying in Canada to any prospective international students interested.
“As far as education is concerned, I think Canada is the best Western country. The bilingual system is pretty much the same here in Vanuatu.”
“Canada is really multicultural, that’s what I noticed. Ni-Vanuatu are an Indigenous people… and stay in one corner of the world. We are not familiar with what is happening on the big continents.
“But when I came to Canada and witnessed the multicultural mix and the way people work, I think, Canada is the best place. The atmosphere can really shape a student.”
After his studies, Obed returned to Vanuatu for a short time, bearing gifts for his mother and siblings.
“I felt like Santa Claus coming from the snow.”
Studying in Canada shaped his way of thinking, and allowed him to apply his learning when he returned to Vanuatu. Reflecting on his experience, he understands that his growth was both personal and professional.
He is not the same person he was. The new people, the places, and the things he experienced while studying in Canada influenced him in ways he did not expect.
“After I returned home, I realized we need to expand our way of thinking.”
When prompted further, he said, “It wasn’t better, just different. In Vanuatu, we are a community. We care for one another and know everyone.”
Alain’s journey is far from over. Today, he is completing his Masters in cybersecurity at La Trobe University in Melbourne but has not forgotten his experience.
“I want to say ‘thank you’ to Canada. I see Canada as a close friend.”
He intends to continue his academic career and pursue a PhD in cyber law, since, he says, many lawyers in Vanuatu are not confident or familiar to delve into technology and cyber law.
He wants to complete his PhD in French and hopes to return to Canada, for a longer period next time. And now that’s he has planted some roots, it’s clear that Canada might just pull him back!