People of Georgian: Alumna’s hunger for higher education propels her from ‘humble beginnings’
February 12, 2021

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Our Georgian College community is full of unique, inspiring perspectives, and we’re sharing different ones each week.

People of Georgian: Roxann Whittingham

Part One: “I would cry and cry and cry and say, ‘I want to go to school.’”

I come from humble beginnings, and that’s a mild term for it.

Now I joke about how, when I was growing up, my sister and I only had one pair of red shoes we had to share.

My mom and my dad separated when we were young, so it was a bit difficult for my mom as a single parent.

So, with one pair of red shoes to share, this meant both of us could not go out at the same time. If I’m going out this weekend, my sister would have to stay home, and then we’d rotate the one pair of shoes like that.

And of course, you know, red shoes don’t match with everything…

But even growing up this way, I was always very ambitious, very curious, very industrious.

I would tell myself: “You know what? If my tummy’s empty, I’m going to fill my head with knowledge.”

Roxann Whittingham, Georgian alumna

My mom was a very hard worker and she really inspired me to strive for everything that I’ve accomplished in my life.

I was very hungry for knowledge from early on because I saw the only way out of that lifestyle was to get myself to a higher level of education.

I lived in a rural district in Jamaica, so getting to school was also a challenge. I would walk for miles to get there, sometimes barefoot, sometimes with lunch, sometimes without lunch.

A person smiles at the camera.

Some days my mom would say to me, “Roxann, you can’t go to school today because I don’t have any money for your lunch.”

I would cry and cry and cry and say, “I want to go to school.” And, you know, I would make such a mess of myself that she’d eventually give in and tell me “OK.”

I would tell myself: “You know what? If my tummy’s empty, I’m going to fill my head with knowledge.”

My problem was I wanted to learn and that kind of zeal propelled me into high school, but in Jamaica at the time going to high school was almost like a luxury, something you dream off.

So, I had to fight to go to high school.

Part Two: “I decided I wasn’t going to give up.”

If you didn’t score a certain average, you couldn’t get into high school.

And even if I scored a good average, the spaces for high school were so limited. Say, for example, 1,000 students could take an exam, they only had space for 100.

I wasn’t able to get a spot at first, but I decided I wasn’t going to give up because if I didn’t get to high school I would have to settle for a very, very mediocre life.

Roxann Whittingham

So, a couple of my friends were good at athletics, and being good at sports was one of the ways to get accepted into high school.

They got invited to a private exam for athletic students, so, of course, I decided there is no way they’re going to leave me behind.

My name was not on the invitation list, but that’s how brave and determined I was.

When we got to the location to do this exam, I was just praying the gentleman didn’t realize I didn’t belong in the group. I snuck my way into the exam so quick and sat all the way in the back. I managed to finish the exam.

A couple weeks later, I got a letter from the school. The gentleman said he realized when he was going through the exam papers that I didn’t belong there, but my grades were higher than the invited students, so he couldn’t deny me.

That’s how I got into high school.

“Burning desire to go to college”

That same determination helped me face other challenges later in life.

I worked here and there, you know, trying to make ends meet.

College, for me, was so far-fetched because coming from a poor community, colleges were such an unattainable thing.

But I still really had that burning desire to go to college.

Part Three: “Coming here was not an easy thing. There was a lot of culture shock, a lot of racism.”

Trigger warning: Anti-Black racism.

Some of my church members said, “We see how determined you are, and you’re such a hardworking person.” They were the ones who put the money together and helped me go to teacher’s college.

Later on, my marriage ended and that propelled me onto this next phase of coming to Canada.

It was challenging to live on one salary and being a mom to two boys.

I ended up having to clean offices and houses just to get by, and at one point before my sons arrived here, I was homeless for a bit, staying with different friends.

Coming here was not an easy thing. There was a lot of culture shock, a lot of racism, you know, a lot of things to struggle with.

Black people have a right to be angry because they’ve spent their whole lives having to defend themselves, having to defend their emotions, having to try to prove that they’re human, having to try to prove that they’re equal.

Roxann Whittingham, Georgian alumna

I even once had a man follow me in his car through a Costco parking lot, swearing and screaming racial slurs and honking his horn.

I just kept walking until he yelled, “You Black piece of ****, go back to your country.”

I was like, “OK, you’ve got my attention. What do you want to say to me?”

When he saw that, he rolled his windows up and bolted.

I thought that was the end of it. When I came out of Costco, my car was keyed from the front to the back, both sides.

As a Black person, you’re always having to prove yourself. And it’s not only for you, but almost like for your whole generation.

I have to succeed so everyone can see that, hey, we are more than cooks, cleaners, nannies, all those things that we’re labeled.

A person stands and smiles at the camera.

If somebody tells me I can’t do something, I tend to work twice as hard to prove them wrong.

A lot of people don’t understand why Black folks are so angry.

They have a right to be angry because they’ve spent their whole lives having to defend themselves, having to defend their emotions, having to try to prove that they’re human, having to try to prove that they’re equal.

I feel like there’s a system set up to block Black people. Every time there’s an opportunity, somebody’s saying to you, “You can’t come any higher. This is where you belong.”

“A lot of change on the horizon”

But Georgian kind of opened up the door for me, and I met some amazing professors in my last semester who really helped to build my self-confidence.

I’m happy with the place I am right now, and I’m not as angry as I was before. I just keep going.

We have such a long, long way to go as a society, but I see a lot of change on the horizon.

Roxann Whittingham, alumna of Georgian’s Child and Youth Care program (Class of 2020) and former VP of Community Engagement for Georgian College Students’ Association Orillia. Roxann also recently created a scholarship for Black students studying at Georgian.

As well, Roxann is an author of three books and an entrepreneur. Follow her jerk marinade business on Instagram.  

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