Backstage: International student experience full of discoveries, artistic rewards

Get to know us in our Backstage at CCPA blog. Contributors are students, faculty, and members of our community. 
Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid interviews four of the College’s international students about their lives before coming to Canada, and about what it’s like to study at CCPA as an international student.

Isabella Giampaolo

Isabella Giampaolo wasn’t surprised to discover at an early age that she had a passion for the performing arts. She also knew that she would someday pursue professional studies, most recently at the Canadian College of Performing Arts. There were telltale signs from the day she was born.

“The funny thing about my parents is that they actually met on stage. They were both actors as young people so I was born thanks to theatre,” recalls the Year II student who was born in Vacallo, a village in Switzerland, the country that her Italian-born parents had immigrated to when they were children.

“They were very Italian people with their culture and they couldn’t fit very well into their country so they started doing theatre. I suppose it was a way for them to escape the reality they were living,” said Giampaolo, who is currently playing Anita in the College’s production of West Side Story.

When they moved to Tocino, the Italian-speaking region of southern Switzerland where she was born, her parents participated in a lot of carnival parades, wearing costumes made by her mother.

“I remember sitting in the stroller and my mom brought me to rehearsal,” Giampaolo recalled. “She was sometimes playing the role of a male and wearing a fake beard and a hat and weird dresses and it was a lot of fun. Indirectly I think I learned a lot from that, assimilating things. I’ve always been a very peculiar child, in my own world. I was very creative, inspired by all the creativity around my family.”

Giampaolo, 25, is one of nine international students currently enrolled at the College.

That number is a huge jump from an average of one per year or two that Director of Education and Programming Heather Burns says she has worked with during her eight years at the College so far.

“We’ve had a student from Hong Kong, China, Korea, Guatemala, Mexico and then out of the blue last year we ended up with nine international students in one class,” Burns said. “We have a community all of a sudden of international students. There is definitely a different feel, a sense of their identity as international students vs. having just one in a class who gets absorbed into the big picture.”

Challenges for students include studying in a foreign, albeit welcoming, land with a different culture where English is usually their second language, and the financial burden, says Burns.

“It’s quite expensive for an international student to study in Canada,” she said. “The differentiation in the program is just that international students aren’t able to get the same subsidy funding.”

Still, it’s a worthwhile challenge with payoffs, students say.

“I love it. I’ve grown a lot, not only as an artist but as a human being,” says Giampaolo, who studied English in Vancouver when she was 19 and later moved to Australia (“because it was warm”). She passed on an opportunity to study at the National Theatre in Melbourne, choosing instead to apply to CCPA.

“I wanted to come back to Canada,” she recalled. “Canadians are teaching me a lot being the way they are. I love Canada, the people and mentality. I always felt the place for me to go would be somewhere there is meritocracy, where people see you for the artist you are regardless of where you come from.”

Fernando Jimenez

Fernando Jimenez, born and raised in Toluca, a small town near Mexico City, said the College has exceeded his expectations since he Googled “best musical theatre colleges in Canada” and it came up.

Jimenez, 30, began his career as a dentist and health advisor who through his master degree project, Repartiendo Salud (Sharing Health), taught preventive health care to people in rural areas of Mexico.

After discovering “that the well-being of a human is a mix between body, mind and spirit” through his charitable endeavours, he decided to quit his job as a dentist and study performing arts abroad.

“I strongly believe that theatre and the performing arts are tools to bring joy and inspiration to individuals,” says Jimenez. He was, he says, “the stereotypical chubby guy with a very annoying voice” whose youthful declarations that he wanted to be a performer were often met with laughter.

Jimenez, who wrote his first play, Do You Want Coffee?, at age 16, went on to produce Alejandro Casona’s Los arboles mueren de pie (The Trees Standing Tall) as a fundraiser for his Year I tuition.

Although he had taken workshops to learn singing and dancing and improve his acting skills in Mexico, he said they were no match for the calibre of instruction he has received at CCPA.

“It was nice for me to learn there are so many different ways of dancing – ballet, jazz, tap. It just opened my eyes,” said Jimenez, whose priorities are musical theatre styles studies, and his passion for film.

“This is my first time doing film. It’s more about writing stories, the process of developing stories that come to mind,” says Jimenez, whose future ambitions include getting a Bachelor of Arts at Capilano College or a similar institution, becoming a director someday and “making the jump” to New York.

Andrea Lemus

“Company C” Studio Ensemble graduate Andrea Lemus, a longtime ballet dancer, says she’s happy she was able to achieve her goal of broadening her artistic horizons during her three years at the College.

After attending the National Ballet School in Cuba for two years, the nomadic dancer resisted offers to audition for a national ballet company in the hopes she could “stretch” at CCPA.

“I always had music in my life. My house in Mexico was filled with instruments, and I wanted to go back to music too,” she said. “By the time I graduated I wanted to do so much more, not just dance ballet forever. I’m very proud about how much I grew. I was terrified of singing, but here I am, acting in plays.”

Lemus, who most recently appeared onstage as Ursula March in Sweet Charity, also discovered through “Company C” Studio Ensemble her love for production aspects such as marketing and set construction.

She returned after graduation to take dance classes and paint the set for West Side Story. Lemus, who also appeared in Pacific Opera Victoria’s production of Countess Maritza, says she plans to audition for cruise ship shows and hopefully pursue an arts degree at Capilano College.

Ricardo Caballero

It was hearing about CCPA from an international alumnus – Enrique Barragan – that inspired Year I student Ricardo Caballero, who was born in Hermosillo, Sonora in Mexico, to audition for the College.

“I saw that he was talented, well-trained in the arts and passionate about his craft,” says Caballero, who before switching gears worked as an industrial engineer and was employed by Clorox in Mexico.

“I decided to come here also because Canada’s people are friendlier towards people from another culture, and I knew I’d get a very high level of training for a lower price than in other countries.”

Caballero, who recalls being an outgoing child but painfully shy in later years, says he decided to explore the performing arts when he was 17 to try and counter that.

“I guess part of why I’m doing this now is still that,” says Caballero, whose highlights so far include “a really cool Connections class” when instructor Matthew Howe presented his class with a challenge.

“He made us pick a song we knew nothing or little about and learn as much we could of it in 15 minutes to present it afterwards. That was a fun challenge.”

Although he admits it was intimidating at first coming to a College that is entirely focused on performing arts and finds the workload and expectations “overwhelming, especially in the last few weeks” Caballero – who currently plays Chino in West Side Story – says he feels he has made enormous strides.

And what would he be doing had he not chosen a new career path?

“I’d be working as a project manager/engineer at the Clorox Company in Mexico, or some other big corporation [like] Colgate-Palmolive, Amazon… For sure I’d be doing community theatre on weekends though.”

View Photo Credits

Stage Door, 2018 | director Jim Leard | photo credit Peter Pokorny