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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'In Canada, you're pushed to explore yourself. Not just learn what you need to learn'

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Everything Joseph Abetria knew about teen life in North America, he learned from the Lindsay Lohan movie Mean Girls.

This may explain why Abetria was so scared when he learned, at age 15, that his family was leaving their native Philippines to join their relatives in Winnipeg. "I had a concept of how Hollywood movies are, how cliquey high schools would be," Abetria says now, remembering his first day at West Kildonan Collegiate in October 2005. "That's what I thought it would be. But my high school was really open, and I wasn't bullied."

Still, those early days were a struggle. Abetria was fluent in formal English when he arrived in Canada, after years of lessons at his school in the Philippines, but the freewheeling casual chatter and ever-shifting slang of his peers sometimes seemed like a whole new language.

Still, Abetria learned to adapt. He marvelled at learning learn Canadian students didn't share textbooks, and soon saw it as a privilege; he watched his classmates closely and imitated the way they spoke, until the words started to come naturally.

Now, Abetria is a University of Winnipeg student, studying to become a theatre set designer. Although he's always been artistic, it's a career choice he may not have had anywhere else. "I got to explore myself more," he says. "The way education is in Canada, you're pushed to explore yourself. Not just learn what you need to learn, but find experiences with it."

One experience he will never forget: in March 2011, almost six years after his first nervous steps on Canadian soil, Joseph Abetria stood up in front of a room of immigrants and proud relatives, and took the oath that officially made him a full-fledged Canadian citizen.

"I see Canada as home now, but that doesn't take away the Filipino in me," he says. "Canada empowers the multiculture of a person. They don't just want you to be Canadian, they want you to bring that Canadian into who you are."

-- By Melissa Martin and Kristy Hoffman

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 J4

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