By Brenna Mackay

“The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The first time Rayon Finnikin heard that poem was in a Grade 4 class in Bethel Town, Westmoreland, a community near Montego Bay, Jamaica. It would be many years before he understood its meaning. At the time, attending post-secondary education seemed like an impossible dream beyond his reach.

Growing up in Jamaica was hard at times, Finnikin says.

“I grew up in poverty and there were many days I would go to bed hungry.”

Some days he had to skip school to take care of his siblings or help his mother sell at the local market. Often, he would cry in private.

Rayon Finnikin

Rayon Finnikin

“Knowing as early as 11 years old that my family didn’t have the resources to give me a proper education was difficult to process,” he says.

“I learned to give thanks for the little we had and to humble myself.”

His mother and grandmother always told him: “Yuh waan good, yuh nose haffi run,” meaning, to gain success, you must work hard.

That proverb was the wind beneath his wings.

“I knew success was attainable and so, despite all the hurdles placed before me, I pushed through it all.”

After losing two brothers to gun violence and fearing for his own safety, he came to Canada as a refugee to start his life over.

“I felt at peace,” he says, describing the experience of arriving in Toronto.

“I came to Canada with little to no confidence because I grew up thinking that I would never be able to reach university,” Finnikin says. “To be thinking about Convocation now is still hard to believe.”

Due to the lack of opportunities available to him while growing up, Finnikin was always passionate about supporting marginalized and at-risk youth. This naturally led him to his current role as a guidance services assistant with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), where he worked full-time while studying Law and minoring in Psychology at Carleton.

“I knew that long term, I would be working within the community,” says Finnikin, who is receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Law. “I wanted to have a better understanding of the legal system in Canada to help individuals navigate the system and also understand psychology to offer mental health support.”

Carleton, he says, provided him with the tools and knowledge to apply what he learned to real-world settings.

“It is crucial to understand our legal and constitutional rights in Canada. Some marginalized youth and families don’t understand their rights because the system keeps it hidden from us. Understanding the system has given me the confidence to advocate for myself and others in my community.”

For example, as part of the Equity and Inclusion Committee at his OCDSB school, Finnikin used skills from a law and statistics course to help develop a better system for student success.

“I was able to pull out data, talk about gathering the appropriate information and separate it so we could paint a better picture,” he says. “Being able to advocate for myself, my students and my community comes from what I learned at Carleton.”

Prof. Zeina Bou-Zeid

Prof. Zeina Bou-Zeid

Particularly, he thanked Prof. Zeina Bou-Zeid for taking an interest in his professional and academic development.

Although English is the official language of Jamaica, he grew up speaking and writing Patois.

“I learned so much about grammar, citation, and communication in her course,” Finnikin adds. “She talked to me about my long-term goals, and it helped push me into the direction I wanted to go.”

Although Finnikin has reached the finish line on his undergraduate degree, his educational journey is just beginning. He is looking forward to starting a Bachelor of Education at the University of Ottawa in September. He hopes to continue his journey as a social justice educator and redefine what is means to have education equality.

Says Finnikin: “I am becoming a teacher because I truly believe the future of our constitution and legal system is dependent upon the next generation knowing the law.”

After the B.Ed., he hopes to work towards a master’s and PhD.

“I hope to become a principal and a part of the board of directors to help implement changes with the school system. The underrepresentation of black male teachers within the profession is a concern for me and representation matters. Black male teachers bring more to the classroom beyond academic content, so it’s appropriate I stick with this direction.”

Ultimately, Finnikin credits his family for their support and encouragement throughout his journey.

“To my dear wife, I’m so blessed of having you. Thank you for your love, care, support and encouraging me to pursue my undergraduate studies at Carleton University. I am so happy I listened to you,” he says.

“To my daughter, Daddy loves you so much, and I hope one day to see you cross the stage at Carleton University.”

Great Grads 2021: Rayon Finnikin Supports Marginalized Youth