Stories of Impact

Determined to learn

Khamla Le makes Canada – and Medicine Hat College – her home

Snow and ice. Bread and butter. Mashed potatoes.

These are a just a few of the things that were new—and rather unpleasant—to Khamla Le when she arrived in Canada 30 years ago.

But these were minor things to overcome for 20-year-old Le, who had been living in a refugee camp in Thailand after ‘escaping to freedom’ from her home in Laos.

“I left because I wanted a better future. It was a hard life,” said Le of her time in the refugee camp. The original plan was for Le and her sister’s family to immigrate to Australia but when that didn’t work out, they applied to Canada and were placed in Medicine Hat by the government in 1985.

“It was a shock for us, coming from a hot country to a frozen country,” recalled Le with a smile. “It was so cold. We had never seen ice and snow before.”

The family had someone to guide them through settling into their new home, but it was a significant challenge dealing with a new language and very different style of living. Although Le had learned some English during her time in the refugee camp, she still struggled with the language and enrolled in the ESL program at Medicine Hat College.

Since then, Le’s life has been entwined with Medicine Hat College.

She studied ESL for a year in Medicine Hat before getting married and moving to Brooks where her husband—also from Laos—lived. She found a tutor and continued her studies through the Adult Basic Education program offered at Medicine Hat College’s Brooks Campus, where she also worked part-time as a custodian.
“From then on, I always wanted to educate myself, better myself,” said Le, who had only attended school until junior high in Laos. “I was so determined to learn.”

She moved into upgrading at Brooks Campus and eventually earned her high school diploma.

“I was excited because I was the first one in my family to achieve these things,” said Le proudly.

Her next goal was to earn an office technology certificate. By this time, she was working full-time at Brooks Campus, raising two children and still trying to master the English language.

“It’s really frustrating because you want to learn so fast but you are stuck. Language is not something you can rush. It takes time and practice.

“I cried sometimes when I took the office technology program. It was lots of homework. I stayed up late and sometimes my kids would come into my room and ask why I was still sitting at my desk. They wanted to know why I was awake so early but I hadn’t gone to bed yet. It was not easy, but I did it.”

Instilling the value of education in her own children has always been important to Le and her husband. Their daughter attended Medicine Hat College before earning an education degree from the University of Lethbridge. Their son also attended the college prior to finishing a technology program at SAIT. Both of her children are now working in Calgary. “Our kids were raised to know education is a very big thing. It’s the only thing that can get you somewhere,” said Le. “I didn’t take no for an answer.”

In addition to being a student and custodian, Le has worn many hats during her 30-year relationship with Medicine Hat College.

As the administrative assistant at Brooks Campus, she’s been the familiar, friendly face at the front desk for years, helping with everything from student residence to finance. She’s also taught cooking and video editing classes, along with children’s summer programming offered through continuing studies.

“I enjoy helping students. It’s very rewarding,” said Le. She feels especially connected to New Canadians and believes she can encourage others who have come from similar backgrounds and experiences to her own.

But what she appreciates most of all about Brooks Campus is its small size and personal atmosphere:

“We’re like family. We get to know the staff and faculty and students in a personal way. We support each other in many ways.”

That support has been instrumental in helping Le build a new life and a better future for her family.

“Canada is home for me now— cold and all.”