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When I was 11 years old, my family moved from Russia to Canada. It is difficult to overstate the amount of effort and bravery that it took for my parents to leave their careers, family, and friends behind to attempt to secure a prosperous future in a foreign country halfway across the world. They had no job leads in Canada. Nobody met us at the airport. They didn’t speak the language and had just enough money to last six months. Stepping off that plane must have been terrifying.

Growing up, there were few things for which I had more resentment than math. In elementary school, I never liked colouring shapes, and I never liked connecting the dots to make a graph. In high school, I would throw my math textbook against the wall from the sheer frustration of being incapable of comprehending the principles of polynomial factoring. I always believed that if the seven circles of hell truly exist, then trigonometry was one of them. All of this negativity clashed markedly with a passionate math teacher that I had the pleasure of learning from in eleventh grade.

Always dressed smug in a suit and accepting no nonsense from his students, he lived by the dogmatic belief that any sort of career success needed an advanced knowledge of mathematics. On the first day of class, he asserted that students who graduate with an engineering degree have the highest starting salaries. As an act of rebellion and frustration, I informed him that I had no intention of touching another math textbook after completing the required high school math courses. He looked at me with an odd mix of bemusement and shock and said, in a patronizing and condescending tone: “Oh, but your parents worked so hard to bring you to this country! Do you really want to be a disappointment to them?”

Back in Russia, my mom was a veterinarian—one of the best in our town. My dad was an award-winning manager at Microsoft. Their friends, families, and their whole life was there. They had everything figured out; life was good. Leaving seemed absurd.

And yet, they willingly gave all that up in search of greener pastures for my sister and myself. Eight years later, they both have stable jobs and a house in a nice neighbourhood. But, the sacrifice that they made is still evident through their weekly short-lived Skype calls with family and childhood friends. The success they have achieved in Canada has come through herculean efforts and at a tremendous personal cost. And they did that all for me and my sister. My experience is not unique. I am certain that most first-generation immigrants’ children can relate to the overwhelming desire to pay our parents back.

And so how do we pay them back? Through relentless determination to succeed, of course. Through building a great career, one that would not have been possible back home, and showing that all of their efforts have been worth it. Financial security is perceived to be the single greatest measure of success, and it is not unheard of for immigrant parents to coerce their children into programs that are most promising statistically. All the major decisions that we make in life stem from the desire to thank your parents for their sacrifice. We often opt for the safe route and strive to become doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Career paths are picked on the grounds of our parents’ desires rather than our passions, and yet we don’t complain, because that would be inexplicably selfish. Our parents dedicated their lives to us, and so it is only fair that we dedicate our lives to thanking them. And it would be absurd to think otherwise.

I have been exceptionally lucky. My parents are incredible people, and have supported all my major decisions. I am pursuing a specialist in political science, and I have no idea whether I want to go to law school or not. I love my program and there is nothing else I’d rather be studying. I want to work in foreign affairs, or maybe not. I am at UofT because I strive to receive an excellent liberal-arts education, but where will it lead me? Will I find a secure job? Will I attain financial security? Was all of this worth moving half way across the world?

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In high school, I watched as some of my friends were forbidden from taking arts or drama courses because their parents said they had to t
ake chemistry and physics instead. I watched the colour drain from their faces as they got their tests back to see that they scored an average grade. I watched them suppress their passions and instead pursue careers in science, math, engineering, and business. Play it safe. Don’t risk it. Don’t you want to make your parents proud? And nobody ever even thought to complain.

 

My dad always said that, “ships are safer when they’re docked, but that is not what they were built for.” I am teaching myself to live by this poignant quote. Admittedly, I value my passion much more than I value my potential income. If doing what I love means living with a mediocre salary, then so be it. I’m just not sure how to do that, and so the gratitude I feel for everything that they have done for me manifests itself in tirelessly pursuing a career and financial security. My life is guided by this, and I don’t complain. I really don’t.

School is hard, and I am struggling to keep my head above water. The future is hazy and confusing and I have nothing figured out and there is a certain charm to it. For me, success is so much more than just being rich. Success means being happy where I am; mentally, and spiritually. Success means being excited to go to work in the morning, and deeply caring about what I do. But, above all else, success means proving that I am someone who was worth uprooting your life for. It always has.