While college simply wasn’t an option for Sulmira Marroquin Menendez for most of her life, she is now a proud graduate who has gone the distance to make her dreams come true.
Her new life in Canada and her Niagara College education have opened doors to new possibilities that she never could have imagined growing up in Guatemala. Even as a child, education took a back seat to the necessity of working for survival. At the age of six, her father died, leaving her and her siblings to live with her grandmother “At that time, her priority was to have us working in order to have something to eat, and we didn’t have the time and money to study full-time,” she recalled.
After completing high school, Menendez moved to a more populated area to find work. There, she met her husband and their first son was born. Violence led her and her husband to flee the country in 2008 with their young son, seeking a safer place to raise their family. They spent a few years in New York, before they arrived in Canada as refugees in 2011 and began a new life in St. Catharines.
To help her adjust to her new life in Canada, she enrolled in Niagara College to study English as a Second Language, and completed the program in spring 2014. “We feel very thankful for all the opportunities that Canada and Niagara College gave to us,” she said. “The impact on the quality of our lives is immeasurable.”
Menendez worked as a custodian and several odd jobs before landing work as a general labourer at a Niagara-on-the-Lake greenhouse. While learning more about hydroponics, she became interested in pursuing her education in the field of horticulture.
“Because I grew up on a farm, I always wanted to study about plants,” she said. In January 2017, Menendez made the decision to go back to school. She returned to Niagara College as a Horticultural Technician student, while continuing to work part-time.
It was a challenging move for the mother of three, who was already dividing her time between household and parenting duties and her job. But Menendez knew that the College’s two-year Horticultural Technician diploma program would equip her with the tools she needed to succeed in her chosen field – and more. “It boosted my self-esteem,” she said. “I have more confidence knowing that I can do my job properly.”
College life also opened the door to unexpected opportunities. Earlier this year, she participated in an International Field Studies trip to the Dominican Republic – one of several short-term study offerings from Niagara College’s signature Be World Ready program, which is supported by travel bursaries funded by donors to the College.
While in Los Cacaos, students engage in activities related to fair-trade coffee production, greenhouse production, and environmentally sustainable growing methods, as well as interact with the community in cultural exchanges.
It proved to be an enriching experience for Menendez, who was interested in travelling to a Spanish-speaking country and putting the skills she learned in the classroom into practice. One of the highlights, for Menendez, was visiting an elementary school where she shared her experiences with the children.
“It was a very emotional morning. It reminded me of my childhood,” she said. “I really hope those kids get an opportunity to grow their potential and become successful in life.”
Seeing the children with very limited resources gave Menendez extra motivation to succeed her chosen career. She began to see that her dedication to her studies was paying off with good marks, and she was thankful for the support she had from faculty and her fellow students,
For Menendez, participating in the trip was only made possible through the generosity of donors, and she is grateful for the valuable opportunity.
“Without the travel bursary I couldn’t afford it. The bursary meant the difference between going or not going,” she said.
Today, Menendez – who is now 31 – marks two dreams fulfilled: becoming a college graduate, and becoming a supervisor. She graduated from the College’s Horticultural Technician program in June 2018 and has become a supervisor in charge of pest control at St. David’s Hydroponics.
“It started out as a dream,” she said, as she reflected on her journey over the past few years, “and has now become a reality.”