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By Genevieve Tomney

She’s a soft-spoken girl, her English isn’t perfect. She says she’s nervous–afraid she might say the wrong words.

At 21, Xiao Cun has met her share of challenges. As a student at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, now China Communication University, she was a multimedia student who discovered her real passion was for the visual arts. But dreams in China do not easily become reality–especially for college kids wanting to switch majors.

“To get into university in China, a very, very important test decides,” she says. “If you didn’t do it well you couldn’t go anywhere and if you want to reapply, you have to take the test again.”

But it wasn’t an exam that ultimately drove Xiao away from China. The photography program at the school she attended was, literally, just out of her reach.

Xiao stands 160 cm tall, about 5’3″–the program requires applicants to be 165 cm. Xiao didn’t bother applying. She says its common practice to impose height restrictions in a country that has so many people and so few spaces in post-secondary programs. The standard is lofty. Xiao has grown up accepting these restrictions and thought she could never be a photographer.

“It makes sense,” she says. “If you’re taller, you’ll have a better view. Don’t you agree?” But ultimately, accepting defeat was not what Xiao had in mind. She moved to Toronto in June 2004 and changed her name to Hope.

Arriving in Toronto, Hope was determined to attend Ryerson’s photography program. Again, she was greeted with adversity. Ryerson requires international students to take an English test to assess if their language skills will serve them in classroom situations. Hope failed the test three times, but kept practicing and hounding the program co-ordinator.

The fourth time she took the test, she passed. Finally enrolled in the program, Hope focused on her photography. She says she’s drawn to the craft because of its collective nature. “I like that the study is combined,” she says. “People and art together.” The photography program also brought Hope together with her friend, Mercedes Grundy.

Grundy, also a first- year photographer, recalls meeting Hope by their lockers and spending the next couple of hours talking. “We talked a lot about the English and Chinese languages,” she says. “She taught me how to say her name in Chinese, and I wrote out her Chinese name phonetically.”

Hope says she’s learned many things from her classmates here that she never would have learned in China. There, she says, views are very narrow-minded. But her peers in Toronto taught her to approach things differently and to try everything. On one assignment, she chose to photograph a snowboarder who wasn’t snowboarding.

“I try to get their life, their after snowboarding life,” she says. “They’re seen as heroes, stars, very brave. I get just the normal people.” It’s been a steep learning curve for Hope. As well as photography classes, the program includes a weekly three-hour lecture on art history. She struggled at first, not understanding and finding the classes very complex.

But she wouldn’t give up on it–a trait her peers respect. “She really wants to be good at English and succeed in her program … she’s a trooper,” says Grundy. As she nears the end of her first year, Hope feels like a lot of her struggles are behind her. Lectures seem easier this semester; she’s made good friends and better connections with her instructors.

Still, she is humble about life’s little hardships. which friends such as Grundy insist she has conquered. “She (Grundy) says I’ve overcome a lot. But no, I don’t think that.”

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