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Identity in education: how one SJE grad is changing the conversation about Roma youth in Canada

By Tristan McGuirk

June 11, 2019 

Ildi Photo

(Photo courtesy of Ildi Gulyas) 

Having spent three years working as a Youth Outreach Worker with Roma youth – a European ethnic group originating in northern India – Ildi Gulyas says she knew that things needed to change, and OISE was the place that was going to make that happen.

“The kids that I was working with were refugees from Eastern Europe, specifically Hungary, and they were bringing a thousand-year-history of being oppressed over here with them. They were getting treatment in school based on a lot of stereotypes and I wanted to look into it more. That’s why I decided to come back to school,” says Gulyas.

A self-described proponent for access to education, Ildi knew that if things were going to change with Roma youth, they needed to start in the classroom.

Interested in the ways education influences progress, she says an undergraduate professor – and former OISE faculty member – led her to OISE. From there, the choice was simple. OISE’s Department of Social Justice Education offered Ildi the opportunity to combine her interest in social justice and identity studies with her passion for education.

Upon entry to the Master of Arts program, she began researching the experience of Roma people in the education system and noticed that much remained to be done in identifying the relationship between the Roma community and higher education.

“All of the research in Canada on the Roma community is mostly on immigration, refugee and migration – there was nothing on education,” says Gulyas.

SJE was the perfect place to get the conversation started, and she quickly found her research goals supporting her personal interest in her own Roma ancestry.

She says that courses such as ‘Identity in Education’ with professor Lauren Bialystok contributed to a greater understanding of her Roma identity, as well as the ways in which the Roma community have been neglected in educational contexts.

When it came to research, Ildi says that much of the work conducted surrounding Roma youth involves deficit thinking – or the suggestion that marginalized students fail in school because such students and their families have cultures which obstruct the learning process and are seen as deficit. Ildi says this approach is detrimental, as it suggests that the students’ Roma identity is somehow to blame for the challenges they experience in educational contexts.

“Only a few contemporary pieces of research that I read were more positive and looking at the people who were succeeding, and I wanted to highlight those success stories as well,” says Gulyas.

Ildi decided to focus her thesis on Hungarian-Roma refugees in Canadian post-secondary environments. As Roma representation in academic space is limited, she hoped to identify trends and commonalities between her subjects, as well as their motivations towards post-secondary studies.

“I wanted to interview Roma youth attending post-secondary school and identify what pushed them towards academia,” says Gulyas.

Ildi explains how as many in the Roma community feel overlooked by the education system, Roma youth are often pushed away from  participating in post-secondary education. So what made these students do the opposite? Why were some choosing to continue in the education system?

Seeking answers to these questions, Ildi says she was able to gain a greater sense of her own ancestry as a member of the Roma community, while fulfilling the goals of her graduate research.

“I learned a lot about the history, and I learned how systems of oppression manifest to keep Roma people where they are. It also reaffirmed my belief that there’s got to be critical discussions in the community as well. I learned quite a bit, and came out more proud of my Roma ancestry” says Gulyas.

Her newfound pride proved useful this past spring, when she was invited to present her research at the Critical Approaches to Romani Studies conference at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. Her research, she says, gave her new perspective on the culture of a country that she had not visited in over 15 years.

So what’s next for Ildi?

“I’m actually contemplating doing research on my own, or a PhD,” she says.

Above all else, she says she is most excited to continue the conversation about Roma people.

“Roma have been here [in Canada] since the 1800s, and Canada could be a fresh start for the community. We have the multiculturalism and the diversity – we also have the thinking and the type of humanities based educational research that isn’t often found in Europe. It’s a huge gap, and there’s so much essentializing of the people – and I feel like they could use a fresh start. I hope to be a part of this,” says Gulyas.

 

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