June 11, 2021

Class of 2021: Childhood move to Canada sparked a lifelong joy in learning language

Throughout her Bachelor of Community Rehabilitation degree, Valentina Villamil empowered others to find their voice
Valentina Villamil
Valentina Villamil.

When he first encountered Valentina Villamil as a student in his first-year Introduction to Disability Studies class, Gregor Wolbring, a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, thought: “Here’s a potential leader.” He was right. The newly minted Bachelor of Community Rehabilitation graduate is not only passionate about her chosen path but, says Wolbring, “she has demonstrated vision, foresight, determination and drive, which make her a great collaborator and leader.”

Though she couldn’t have conceptualized it then, Villamil knows now that the seeds of her academic and career path were planted when she was a child. At six years old, Villamil and her family immigrated to Calgary from Colombia. “I didn’t speak a word of English but,” she says, “I learned on the fly thanks to helpful teachers and classmates.”          

The wonder and joy of learning language

That experience of being temporarily unable to communicate with others, followed by the wonder and joy of learning the language, shaped Villamil’s current desire to help others who struggle to make themselves understood. This fall, she embarks on a graduate degree in speech-language pathology at the University of Alberta.

Throughout her undergraduate degree, Villamil pursued multiple opportunities to hone her skills and expand her knowledge through hands-on experiences. Her professor was consistently impressed with her participation in workshops, academic journal-writing and conferences. “Most of the time, my students were the only undergraduate students at conferences,” says Dr. Wolbring, PhD. “I still recall the outstanding presentations Valentina gave at the Canadian Bioethics Association Conference in Banff in 2019 when she had just finished her second year of her bachelor.” Beyond her academic success, he adds, “Valentina is a natural communicator and can transmit knowledge in a way that draws in people and makes people relate to her.”

Natural communicator

Getting to start research so early on helped my worldview throughout my degree,” says Villamil. “A lot of what we focussed on was at the intersection of social justice and disability studies.” Villamil says that, as an able-bodied person, she feels a responsibility to be an ally to people with disability. “One way to do that is to produce research that could guide policies and positively impact people.” She is, she says, “so proud to be part of producing knowledge to help with that.”

Villamil is also gratified to have gained new perspective on her desire to spark change. “When I started working with people, I thought, ‘Oh, I can help them.’ ” Now, she says, “I realize that was wrong — instead, my work is about creating a bond with an individual.” It’s not about fixing the person, she says, “it’s about empowering them.”

UCalgary convocation

Congratulations, Class of 2021!

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