Newcomer Story: Ellen Min Chen

Lady at the finish line of Manitoba marathon

Ellen after crossing the finish line in the 10K race of Manitoba Marathon at University of Manitoba in 2021.

We’re celebrating Ellen who is our first Language Contest winner. Our Language Contest consists of three fairly difficult grammar questions every Friday on English Online’s (EO) Facebook and Instagram pages. After successfully answering the first set of questions correctly, she continued answering the weekly quizzes, acing all of them. This earned for her the additional title of overall Language Contest winner for February.

Not bad for someone who came to Canada with almost no English.

This is the simple truth about Ellen – she prepares, works hard and then beats all odds to reach her goals. So it’s not really surprising that she won our contest. This is just another notch on what’s becoming a lengthy list of achievements for Ellen.

On her own but not alone

Ellen came to Canada in 2015 to study Culinary Arts and Design at the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology (MITT). Before coming to Manitoba, she signed up for a homestay program since she was coming to the country alone. This proved to be a wise move as she could not say enough good things about her experience. “My first homestay family was very patient and supportive. When they picked me up at the Winnipeg airport and asked a simple question, I didn’t even know how to speak a whole sentence! So they helped me practice speaking English after school daily. My homestay mom would ask me what cooking skills and recipes I learned at school during our family dinner time, and my homestay dad would teach me new vocabulary when he drove me home every time,” Ellen recalls. After a year, however, she had to move to a second family when her homestay dad injured his back. Ellen lived with the next family for four years. She established such a close bond with them that even today, despite having moved out and living on her own, she still calls them weekly and visits them monthly.

Ellen completed the culinary arts program in a year and immediately applied for a post-graduation work permit. Being the hard worker that she is, she took on three part-time jobs and became a full-time cook after graduation. She worked for two and a half years as a cook in a restaurant until she became a Permanent Resident (PR). But shortly before receiving her PR card, Ellen decided to shift her focus to immigration studies. She shares that when she was working at Tim Horton’s, she helped her colleagues there who were also applying for PR. One day a co-worker told her “Ellen, you should really be an immigration consultant. You’re good at it.” Ellen took this to heart and decided to study “Immigration: Law, Policies and Procedures,” a one-year online program at the University of British Columbia. On the very day of her graduation, she received a job offer to work at a private immigration service and consulting firm assisting Chinese clients to meet their immigration objectives. Ellen accepted the offer to work as an immigration administrative assistant and has since been promoted to office manager.

The principle of mise en place

When I invited Ellen for this interview, she asked if she needed to prepare for the questions. I told her that it will just be a casual chat, but she still took it upon herself to list down all her talking points. She explained that this is a habit she learned from being in the culinary industry. “The first thing I learned from the culinary arts program is the French term called mise en place (everything in place.) You get all the ingredients prepared and ready before starting to cook,” she said. Since then, thorough preparation has become a habit she practices in most aspects of her life.

Preparation, coupled with perseverance and a love for learning seems to make up the secret sauce that fuels her drive. If you check Ellen’s LinkedIn profile, you’ll see that despite working several jobs, she’s had time to volunteer, take professional courses, learn English, and even run in marathons, yearly! In fact, she has participated and finished as a medalist in the 10K Manitoba Marathon six times (see her photo above) and she’ll participate again in 2022. For her, this is another way of supporting the community and integrating into Canadian culture.

This drive has also led her to continue improving her English language skills. “Those five years I stayed with my homestay family and worked in various jobs helped me improve my English. When I joined a Chinese company, where my colleagues and clients are all Chinese, I communicated mostly in Chinese in the workplace. But when I went home, I bonded with my host family entirely in English. Now I live by myself, so I create a personal language learning environment at home. If you’re not constantly learning, you’re actually falling behind. That’s why I started taking English courses. I participate in EO classes during my lunch break and free time after work,” Ellen said. Aside from wanting to improve her English in her daily life, she is also preparing to take the IELTS test as a requirement for becoming a licensed immigration consultant.

Learning with EO

“I definitely enjoy learning with EO, especially the vibe of online classes. I’ve met a lot of instructors, Pam, Nastashya, Blaine and some teachers in training. They are friendly and knowledgeable. They always encourage us to ask questions and give us feedback on our homework. I’ve also met other learners all over the world. We get to practice small talk and then discuss a certain topic in group chat. With some of the learners, I can tell that their language skills are at the beginner level, but they are so brave to talk. That’s the significant step to moving forward.” she said.

Another important thing she is learning is being an autonomous learner. “I have developed a learning habit at EO. I check the upcoming events at the beginning of each month and then choose any classes I’m interested in and add them to my Google calendar. I always make a 10-minute reminder for each class, so I won’t be late. In March, we started a new Multi-Week course “Become an Autonomous Language Learner,” and I learned two words – intrinsic and extrinsic. I realized that the idea behind these words is related to my experience learning English. For the past several years, I’ve studied English so hard just because I have to pass English language tests to achieve immigration goals, such as getting into Canadian College, entering Canada with a student visa, and receiving a permanent residency status. So this is extrinsic – you learn English for a specific purpose. It feels like learning English is a chore. I have never thought of asking myself if I really enjoy it, or which part of the language do I like to learn? That’s a huge change in awareness,” she said.

Meeting settlement challenges

This “aha moment” about learning motivation is related to her experience in 2020 when she took the IELTS test as a requirement for her licensure. Unfortunately, she didn’t reach her target score. “This experience made me question myself. How come I didn’t measure up? As a result, I was so frustrated, and I started feeling all the physical symptoms of stress like fatigue and body pain”, she said.

Ellen was able to hurdle this rough period by seeking professional help. However, because of the language barrier, she had to find ways of understanding her situation first and finding solutions that made sense. “My family doctor could refer me to a therapist, but I was concerned about expressing my feelings properly and accurately in English because how would they understand the cultural factors involved in my mental health? So I did my research first by exploring online resources about psychology and therapies,” she said. Later on, she availed of free therapy from NorWest Co-op Community Health. She also found that meditation helped her immensely. It’s a practice she now does every day.

Another challenge she met early on is navigating the language barrier and recognizing the cultural component. “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. As newcomers, we need to be careful about using the phrase ‘I need’. Because if it is used at the wrong time and with the wrong tone of voice, it can sound bossy and rude. For example, when you order food at a restaurant, it is more polite to say ‘May I’ instead of ‘I need’ to show your respect. Small talk is also a new communication skill I learned in the Canadian workplace. When I was working in the kitchen, I didn’t pay attention to daily conversations with other cooks and chefs. My previous co-workers probably thought I was shy or cold! But I just didn’t have the awareness to use small talk. I realized that it is always necessary to understand and adapt to Canadian social norms,” Ellen said. She adds that the best way to adjust is to observe and accept differences, be open to change, and become a lifelong learner.

Future plans

Ellen was excited to share that she recently passed the interview to become an EO volunteer settlement e-coach. “Thank you for posting the practical articles about volunteering on EO’s Live & Learn website. When preparing for my volunteer interview, I explored online resources on EO without checking other websites. Besides reading your articles, I also reviewed all of the presentations from the Multi-Week Courses– Volunteering in Canada, which I attended last year,” Ellen said. She is now ready to coach her first mentee after the volunteer training. She looks forward to “learning by teaching,” meaning applying what she learned at EO as she helps more newcomers in the community.

Despite her hectic life, Ellen plans to continue learning with EO to improve her English. “As a learner, my goal is to spend 1,000 hours on EO. I’ve already spent 110 hours which means I’ve attended 110 classes since 2021,” she said. As for her IELTS test goal, Ellen has taken a better and more mature perspective about this target. “The goal is challenging, but I’ll take my time, monitor my progress, and focus on the moment. The road to success is always under construction. At least I’m enjoying the journey, she said.