Immigrant experience led MRU team to topic for Map the System

Mount Royal hosting Canada Final May 27
From left, Andrea Barlaan, Linh Bui, Ally Phan.
From left, Andrea Barlaan, Linh Bui, Ally Phan.

The team representing Mount Royal University at this year’s Map the System Canada Final came to their research topic through their own experiences and observations as immigrants to Canada.

Teams from across the country will take to the Bella Concert Hall Stage at Mount Royal University on May 27 for the national final.

Map the System is an initiative out of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship based at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. Mount Royal’s Institute for Community Prosperity’s mandate for Map the System is to “connect students with social-impact learning through applied, community-partnered research, creative knowledge mobilization and systems-focused education.”

Faculty and staff work closely with students who are willing to undertake the immense challenge of discovering the root causes of systemic problems and apply an enactable solution. This work happens outside of the demands of their regular coursework.

"Map the system provides an opportunity for students to explore issues that matter to them using a systems thinking lens, often these students find topics they are genuinely passionate about. Map the System allows for all of us to see these issues brought to light, which we often miss due to the ways we experience life,” says Map the System program lead Alita Vaz, herself a participant in last year’s MRU and national competition along with Amisha Sharma.

“It is a platform for students to share what they care about and why we should care too. Sharing the journey of exploration with the students is a privilege in itself and has opened my eyes to some interesting ways of looking at the world."

MRU team’s experiences led to research topic

Representing MRU this year is Triple A, who came first in the MRU competition held April 4 and also picked up the Best Research Award. Some 14 teams completed submissions at MRU this year – the largest group to compete at the MRU competition.

Team members Linh Bui, Ally Phan, and Andrea Barlaan chose the topic Underemployment of Canadian Economic Immigrants. Through data analysis, interviews, and literature review, they found disparities in employment opportunities and immigrant skill underutilization. They discovered that contrary to common belief, foreign credential recognition isn't the root cause, but rather a symptom of deeper issues related to systemic barriers.

“Canada is an immigrant country, which means all of us have to start as an immigrant somewhere on our journey. Andrea, Ally, and I all came to this country at different points in our lives,” says Bui.

Barlaan moved to Canada when she was eight years old with her family, Phan moved here when she was 19 with her family, and Bui came here after graduating high school as an international student. Each has their own outlook on the struggles they have to overcome living in Canada, but what brought them together was a shared perspective of what it means to be an immigrant.

“One day I heard a story of a five-year working Uber driver who was a doctor in their home country and shared it with Ally and Andrea,”  says Bui.

“We realized this is a familiar story to all of us, whether from experiences of ourselves, our families or our acquaintances in the community. We then found an article stating Canada ranks second among G7 countries in terms of the share of immigrants who feel overqualified for their jobs, which made us curious to explore it further.”

That shared perspective fed the passion the team brought to the competition. Seeing the discrepancy between immigrants' dreams and reality made them determined to study reasons for underemployment, although they learned that determining those reasons is not simple.

"System Mapping taught me that the answer is not always what we think it is. As we were building up our understanding of the problem, we discovered that there are various factors that contribute to the problem more than just the symptoms on the surface."
Ally Phan

“The competition encouraged us to listen to the diverse perspectives and lived experiences of multiple stakeholders, while being able to see the system forces and patterns beyond seemingly subjective and different observations.”

What they found is that underemployment has roots in history, government policies, and the mindset of the people involved. Further research revealed deeper layers, and the team realized that being an immigrant can be a struggle, no matter when or where they are born.

“On the other hand, we found positivity in our system mapping journey,” says Phan.  “Every immigrant, including the professionals we interviewed, all have hopes of going against the grain and achieving a better future. No matter how small we are in the system, immigrants were the builders of the Canada we know today. We are grateful to be able to learn system mapping as it allows us to think differently and inspire change as students.”

For Triple A, having MRU host the Map the System Canada Final is an opportunity to learn from others while striving for a top finish.

“Coming from humble backgrounds, I feel incredibly fortunate to have reached this stage at Map The System Canada,” says Barlaan.

“Our team deeply values the power of passion and collaboration in tackling complicated social issues which confidently reflects the core of what system mapping is.

“We are ambitious about reaching higher milestones at the national competition. We also want to learn from other students and their research and continue feeling inspired and empowered that changes could be made in the generations to come. I am also looking forward to attending the Banff Map the Systems Summit to learn more about what our fellow Map the System competitors are passionate about and to gain deeper insights, while networking with like minded individuals.”

Challenging students to go beyond their disciplines

James Stauch, director of the Institute, says society struggles with issues such as the persistent and growing housing crisis, the infodemic, and our struggle to use advancing technologies for the common good. A big part of this struggle is understanding. Why do such problems persist even though we pour millions into social science research, have a plethora of NGOs, social movements and public policies focused on any given issue, and have a more educated population than at any time in human history?

“One important reason is that we think “asystemically. We view problems through the narrow scope of our professional siloes or academic disciplines. Our attention spans and time horizons are short, and our memories are amnesiac,” explains Stauch.

“Map the System challenges students to go well beyond their disciplines, to question not just practices, policies and structures, but deeply held assumptions, often at the level of culture and collective mental models.”

Read more about Map the System Canada Final.