Written by Saba Hailemariam

After a year of English classes, Nadia Natasha was admitted to a diploma program in social work and now supports herself with two part-time jobs.

Nadia Natasha is a social work student from Indonesia, who works two jobs before and after class to make ends meet.
Photo: Saba Hailemariam

Nadia Natasha works hard to support and put herself through school. But you won’t find her complaining as this Mount Royal University student from Indonesia builds a new life in Calgary. As a MRU janitor at night and a student by day, Natasha struggles to reconcile these roles as her parents pray for the success of her and her older brother, in Canada.

Natasha overcame her struggles by not only coming from a third-world country in 2008 to live a better life in Canada, but also having the strength to survive and succeed in what she called ‘”a whole new world’.”

“I am a student in the day and a janitor at night,” Natasha said as she pushed her janitorial cart down the W wing at MRU while speaking with me. Natasha is an immigrant from Bandung, is the capital of West Java Island, a province in Indonesia that is populated with two million people.

She is in her third year now at MRU. Yet, when she’s in class she doesn’t feel like an employee, and when she’s working she doesn’t feel like a student, she said.

“It’s like living two lives,” Natasha said. “I play a role as a janitor and a role as a student.”

Indeed, the janitor job is just one of two that she has on campus. Before school, Natasha works at Cultures in the Student Union Building in the mornings three times a week. The custodial job is the less prestigious of the two jobs. Her janitorial shifts are in the evenings after class. Holding two jobs helps Natasha maintain a stable income, although cleaning can be hard on her image.

When she was 21, she remembered a few of her classmates, who used to speak to her in class during her first semester at MRU, witness her working as a janitor. Thinking nothing of it, she quickly realized that it was a problem, because those same classmates stopped talking to her the next day in class.

“I think they were ashamed or embarrassed that I was a janitor,” Natasha said. “I felt oppressed and judged for where I worked.”

Natasha is a young woman who is determined and eager to take advantage of all the opportunities Canada has to offer. Although she has a strong backbone, she’s caught between not two but four worlds: her homeland Indonesia, where her parents still live, her Canadian home, a basement suit she shares with her brother, the world of the university custodial staff and that of a social work university major.

“Even though I have a new life in Canada, I’m still Indonesian, so it can be hard handling two different worlds,” Natasha said.

Yasmin Dean, an associate professor in the department of social work who does not teach Natasha, explained that some students experience depression or have a depressed family member. She said that it could be caused by a lack of social connection because in a perfect world students would only have to worry about going to school, not working, too.

“Even if there is a desire on other people’s side to make friends and form social connection, there just literally may be no time,” Dean said. “So sometimes that experience can be translated into a lack of social connection.”

Dean said she believes that, occasionally by default, international students experience more comfort while working for agencies that work with new-comers or a workplace where the student can land internships, because those agencies are more willing to overlook accents and difficulties with language.

“I think often times they’re more likely to end up in immigrant types of agencies partly because of their skills, their own comfort levels and their ability to work within their own communities,” Dean said.

Work Attire

Dressed in a baggy ocean blue-collared shirt, skinny jeans and sneakers, Natasha said she feels fine in her work attire, but feels as though others may not be, based on the stares that she receives from students in the hall. Whereas, when one of her classmates recognizes her and asks “Hey, aren’t you in my class?” it makes her feel like she’s a part of the school. Natasha said she wants students to know that when she is working as a janitor, she is still as much a student as everyone else is. She doesn’t like people looking down on her like she isn’t educated and that she’s working as a janitor, because she can’t find anything else.

“This is just a part-time job while I go to school, not a life career,” Natasha said.

See the sign? Natasha supports herself with a janitor's job at MRU. She wonders why people still come in the washrooms when the sign says "Closed," and she's cleaning.
Photo: Saba Hailemariam

While she is working, one of Natasha’s biggest issues with students is when disregard the “Closed for Cleaning” sign. Especially when students don’t have to actually use the washroom, and come in only to stare at themselves in the mirror or apply more make-up. She said she would be grateful if students were more considerate.

“I would appreciate it if people could at least ask to come in when I’m working,” Natasha said. “A ‘Please,’ ‘Thank you’ or ‘Excuse me’ would be nice.”

Natasha said that she could tell when people were passing judgment on her, because of her Asian appearance. She recalled a time when she overheard two students talking about her with the assumption that she couldn’t speak or understand English. Natasha doesn’t know exactly what the two girls were saying, but she said it was obvious they were talking about her. She said the girls were whispering to each other, while staring and laughing at her.

“You can tell when someone is making fun of you, because it’s easy to know that,” Natasha said.

She sympathizes with the Mount Royal University janitors who can’t  speak English and can’t find better employment. Natasha said most of the janitors she works with are international students. She assumes most of them work janitorial jobs, because they don’t associate the same type of humiliating image with the job that Canadian-born students do.

Richard Thomas, housekeeping coordinator of the janitorial services at MRU, said a fair amount of the janitors are degree-holders, but their educations are of no use in Canada.

He said they are attending school here again in the field they already graduated from in their homelands.

“Since they can’t work in their ideal profession, they have to work jobs that may not have been their No.1 preference,” Thomas said.

Thomas added that others are international students who are pursuing their first degree.

“Working as a janitor is an easy pick-up so international students or immigrants who are lacking in English, education and experience will be able to obtain a job as a janitor without extensive requirements,” Thomas said.

Making Ends Meet without Parents


Nadia Natasha and her brother Marcel Bastian in the food court at Mount Royal University.
Photo: Saba Hailemariam

On Aug. 10, 2008, Natasha came to Calgary to live with her brother, Marcel Bastian, who is also self-supporting. Both jobs combined, Natasha works so much, because she needs to support herself of all aspects of her life.

On average, she needs about $4,000 each semester for tuition, $220 for monthly rent — her brother pays the same amount, and the family upstairs makes up the rest of the $1,325 per month rent —$60 for her monthly cell bill, but only $30 for groceries monthly, because she contributes $3 a day to the family of four that lives in the upper part of the home for groceries. As well, she sets aside a couple hundred dollars for miscellaneous needs. She and her brother live in the Simcoe neighborhood, located in southwest Calgary.

Natasha is half-Chinese from her father’s side and half pure Indonesian from her mother’s side, also known as “pribumi” in her country. There is tension between the Chinese and the pure Indonesians, because they feel as though the Chinese have taken all their business away, prospering from it.

In a phone interview from Indonesia that was translated by Natasha, her father, Henry Jusuf Yogya, said he wanted to send Marcel and Nadia to Canada for a better life, because there were many problems in their hometown of Bandung, Indonesia. When Nadia graduated from high school in 2008 her parents began the process of sending her to join her brother in Canada.

“The economy in Indonesia was very bad and we didn’t want our children to suffer,” Henry said. “We want our children to have the best education (possible) and find good jobs after.” Nadia Natasha, 22, is the middle child in her family and has two siblings. The eldest is Bastian, 23, and the youngest is Jessica Natasha, 18, who is still in Indonesia.

Marcel currently works at ARC Resources Ltd. in downtown Calgary, an oil and gas company. He works in the mailroom, handling packages, rock samples, and oil samples and letters from other companies. Marcel has to make sure these items get to the right people.

Marcel said that Canada was a huge blessing in all aspects.

“When I was 14 years old in Indonesia all I would do was hang out with friends and stay out all night causing trouble,” Marcel said.

Natasha’s father worked as a contractor building homes and selling them. Her father would move the family into every home he built, moving out once he sold it.

“I think I lived in 10 different homes when I was a child,” Natasha said. “Some of the communities were lower class and some were upper class.”

In 1998 her family moved into a lower-class community so that they could save money. Natasha’s father not only sold homes, he worked at a bank and sold cars on the side. Her mother, Sukesti, was a stay-at-home mom taking care of the children and household duties.

That same year Henry was laid off from the bank, so he and Sukesti decided to open a café called Chempor until 2008.

Today, Henry and Sukesti are doing well for themselves. Henry said he works at Bank of Perkreditan Rakyat and his wife works at Ardan Radio as an accountant and finance consultant. Sukesti also privately works for her friends and family as an accountant and works for the Bandung Embassy Club.


1995 Family Photo
(Back row from left to right) Henry Jusuf Yogya, 42, and Sukesti Soenggoto, 38. (Front row from left to right) Marcel Bastian, 7, Jessica Natasha, 3 and Nadia Natasha, 6. At this time in 1995, Henry was the vice president of Danamon Bank in Indonesia and Sukesti was a housewife.
Courtesy: Nadia's family

Sukesti said in an email interview that she missed Marcel dearly after he left to Canada after completing junior high school, because he was her only son.

“I didn’t take so much stress for Marcel, because I believed it was the best future for him,” Sukesti said.

Sukesti added that she was really sad when Nadia was second to leave, because it meant she was losing two of her three children, however she said she always believed that both her children would come back to Indonesia to visit.

“I was worried I couldn’t gather my family to be together again one day when Marcel and Nadia left,” Sukesti said.

Marcel said he realizes that, due to Nadia working every day, his sister struggles a little with juggling two jobs and school. But he added that he thinks socially, Nadia is fine now and culturally she’s been able to adjust a lot better compared to when she first arrived from Indonesia.

“She doesn’t have culture shock anymore, because she’s been here for almost three years already,” Bastian said.

Although Nadia has had to pay for everything, she said her and Marcel are financially stable and not struggling to get by.

“We are still able to eat out and have enough money to have fun,” Natasha said.

Both working and going to school in the same place works well for her, Natasha said. The many people she runs into everyday helps her make friends.

I met Natasha at a school cafeteria at MRU when she arrived in Canada. From that day forward I’ve always said hi to Natasha every time I see her at school.

Earning her Way into University

Standing at 5-4 with beautiful, thick, long, black hair, make-up-less face and positive attitude, Natasha walks the halls of MRU everyday attending classes to achieve her diploma in social work. It is a program she was finally accepted into in Fall  2010 after taking one year of English as a second language courses along with one year of general studies courses.

Gina Coupland, co-ordinator of practicum and advising for social work and disabilities studies at MRU, said language is one of the barriers existing for international students. She said this can often be a difficult disadvantage for international students, because they don’t know of the agencies available to them, such as the Mustard Seed, Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre, and Salvation Army, to name a few.

“We use a lot of acronyms in this program,” Coupland said. “As a Calgarian, you know what types (of) businesses exist, but as an international student it can be hard to find a practicum placement.”

Coupland said she believes that asking for some extra support from peers, especially in social work, greatly helps.

“People in social work want to help each other and I think that goes back to being in this program, which is all about helping people,” Coupland said.

Coupland said that it’s typical for international students to work in immigrant-serving agencies.

“It’s an area that they have expertise in, because they typically speak a second language, which is a big asset in social work,” Coupland said.

In an effort to better her life Nadia is working very hard to obtain a diploma in social work at MRU. Natasha first arrived to Calgary in 2008 on a student visa and met up with her brother Marcel Bastian who had been in Canada for almost eight years now. Both have struggled to pay for everything on their own such as school tuition and living expenses, because their parents could not afford to pay for them.

“We help and support one another with whatever is needed,” Natasha said.

Natasha and Bastian don’t get the opportunity to spend a lot of time together, because they both live very busy lives. She said the time they do share together is usually on the weekend, mostly Saturdays.

2005 Family Photo
(From left to right) Jessica Natasha, 13, Nadia Natasha, 16, Sukesti Soenggoto, 48, Henry Jusuf Yogya, 52, and Marcel Bastian, 17. In August 2005, Marcel went back home to visit his family in Indonesia.
Courtesy: Nadia's family

“I work and go to school all week and Marcel works full time all week so it’s hard to see each other,” Natasha said.

Natasha began school at MRU in fall 2008 taking one year of English as a second language courses for academic purposes, because she didn’t know a word of English when she first arrived. She said she only knew Indonesian, but after only a year and a half Natasha could speak English remarkably well.

Next, she took general educational courses for one semester so that she could get into the social work program. Ideally, Natasha said she would like to choose a stream of social work that involves the homeless and less fortunate people of Calgary. She’s also particularly interested with working and learning more about the First Nations people of Canada, because she knew nothing about them while living in Indonesia.

She said she learned a lot about First Nations history, and how they are treated today in one of her social work classes. This was because of a research assignment she had to do related to First Nations in Canada.

“Native people are very interesting and I want to learn more and more,” Natasha said.

Natasha said she likes to work with the less fortunate at the Mustard Seed where she volunteers. She said she likes volunteering there, because there are many people living in poverty in Indonesia who don’t have support from the government and access to homeless shelters that provide warmth, food and clothes. The president abandons the homeless in Indonesia and doesn’t help them, therefore she would like to work with them in Calgary, she explained.

“I’m just amazed with Canada and how good they treat the homeless,” Natasha said. “I want to help them.”

As we sat and talked in the upstairs study area of the EC building at MRU, Natasha told me she was stunned when she saw Calgary for the first time, because it was far from what she expected. She assumed Calgary was going to be like New York City, since that was what she saw in the movies.  

“I thought I was going to see expensive fast cars, bright lights, big buildings and people everywhere,” Natasha said.

In 2009, while taking general studies courses, Natasha had a very hard time adjusting to the new atmosphere at school. She also said it didn’t help that she knew of only 11 other students from Indonesia attending MRU.

“I felt very uncomfortable and like an outcast in class, because I didn’t feel like I could relate to anyone,” Natasha said.

For someone who was very talkative and popular back at her high school in Bandung, she said she felt as though she had to become a different person in Canada and she felt that change was beyond her control.

“(But) now that my English is much better, I am more comfortable with my peers and teachers,” Natasha said.

Natasha said she would be going back to Indonesia next year for the first time since she left two years ago. Jessica Natasha, her younger sister, will be returning to Canada to live and go to school at MRU, possibly enrolling in MRU’s broadcasting program.

”I am excited to come to Canada and start my new life there,” Jessica said in a phone interview from Indonesia, translated by Natasha.

When Natasha experienced winter for the first time in Oct. of 2008 she was utterly stunned. She said she initially hated snow and the winter season, but slowly grew to love it over time and now looks forward to winter. Natasha said she’s dreamt of skiing, snowboarding, skating and tobogganing since her arrival to Canada, but still hasn’t tried it due to lack of time and money.

Today Natasha is still attending MRU, along with working full time at the school and is expected to graduate in spring 2012. She said she is very happy and proud to live in a great country such as Canada. She said she now feels safe and comfortable with her surroundings, giving her the confidence to achieve her goals in her future.

“I feel free in Canada, like I can do whatever I want and become whatever I want,” Natasha said. “A perfect ending to my success would be to have my whole family here one day.”