It’s strange for Maria Assaf to be on the other side, answering questions, instead of asking them. Her thirst to ask, and her insistence in getting answers, stems from her past in a far-away land, her native Colombia. Assaf is a Latin American journalist.
Currently in her third year of Ryerson journalism, she’s experienced first-hand the corruption and injustice in her country, which has a history of extreme violence and deep divisions. Colombia’s modern conflicts stem mainly from drug trafficking and government corruption – both widespread issues in most of Latin America.
“In Colombia, you can have any background, profession, social class, and you will still experience and observe injustice in your daily life,” she says. “For me, most of the things reported on here are not news because in Colombia, news is when there’s death, tragedy or political corruption. That’s what I thought news was.”
Growing up in that environment not only frustrated her, but also fueled the idea that the media and the written word could make a change, even if that meant putting her life at risk. “The fact that you see it and nothing gets done about it led me to this idea that writing has power, and that you could expose things that are happening.”
Her dedication to this cause eventually led her to Ryerson University. But coming to Canada was a bit of a cultural shock for Assaf – albeit, one she embraces. Coming from a city with a notable shortage in foreign influence and, for that matter, inhabitants, Assaf has now had a chance to broaden her knowledge and understanding of the world. She’s met people with cultures she’d never heard of before, and learned of countries she’d never known existed.
“When I came to Canada, my world just opened. It wasn’t just Colombia anymore, it was the world. There are different truths out there. So journalistically, it’s really interesting.”
Her challenge, then, was in finding students of the same background, with whom she could speak her language.
“I was in this weird position where I was working on getting my English better, but my Spanish was deteriorating. So it was really stressful,” Assaf says.
She found her opportunity during her second year at Ryerson, when she received an email inviting her to Periodistas de Ryerson, a student group catering to Spanish-speaking journalism students. Running under journalism professor Paul Knox’s leadership, the group meets on a regular basis to discuss topics ranging from journalism in Latin America to language and grammar.
“The meetings are really nice. In school, we’re learning journalism in English, so I had no idea how to say some of the terminology in Spanish. It’s a great opportunity to learn about the language of journalism.”
Hosting guest speakers from time to time, the group is also a good opportunity for members to network in a tricky job market.
“Paul brought a foreign correspondent from Spain last year, and it was a great opportunity for me. That’s the kind of journalism I want to do,” she says.
Networking is key for Assaf. While not sure whether she wants to go into English-speaking or Spanish-speaking media, she admits the former would prove to be more of a challenge.
“Working in English media is going to be harder for me, obviously, than Hispanic media or even Colombian media. I’m getting to know Canadian culture, but I don’t know how open people are in terms of accents in TV,” she says.
On her first day as a CTV intern, she had a reporter come up to her as she practiced in front of the camera, asking, “You do realize you have an accent right?”
He went on to explain how she’d have a hard time getting a job in Canadian media without learning to speak in a Canadian manner. This was news to Assaf, who’d spent the last 2 years trying to learn how to write as a Canadian. Speaking might be a bit more of a challenge.
“From my experience, every single reporter I spoke to told me the same, and I’ve met nobody with an accent that’s not British, unless we’re talking about OMNI news.”
Here lies her dilemma. Does she stay in Canada and keep her permanent resident status? Or does she go back go Colombia, or elsewhere in Latin America, where she might feel more comfortable?
For now, Colombia is not an option, as she’d lose her permanent resident status in Canada.
“This journey began for a reason, and I think I need to go to more places before I go back. Being a Canadian resident, I’m most likely going to get a yes for visas. And because of this, I have all of these opportunities I am so lucky to have.”
These are opportunities she takes seriously. If things go according plan, she’d like to travel to developing countries around the globe, observing how people in different scenarios deal with violence and shady government deals.
“Then I’d be able to go back to Colombia, and apply it there. I’d like to tell people about the rest of the world, to tell them economically and politically how other countries are doing, and to open their eyes about things we could implement there. There are things that are working right here in Canada, and there are small things we could do in Colombia looking up to countries like this,” she says.
**Contact Paul Knox at email@example.com for more information on Periodistas de Ryerson.