People of SFU

Flight and exile instills a lifelong commitment to social justice and equity for Paola Ardiles Gamboa

August 17, 2023

Paola Ardiles Gamboa, PhD, was a child when she and her family came to Canada, fleeing the persecution and terror of Chile’s military junta in the ’70s. The memory of her family’s flight and exile, combined with the sacrifices of her parents, helped form the values that have led to her lifelong commitment for a healthy and just society.

Arriving in Toronto as a five-year-old, Paola didn’t quite understand the significance of that first journey. Later, her mother shared how chaotic and heart-wrenching that voyage had been. “I had a window seat and was looking at the clouds that we were passing us by and was really excited about this big adventure ahead,” says Ardiles Gamboa, a senior lecturer in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences who was recently honoured with a Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards. “I had no idea that this trip would end up being for the rest of my life.”

“Families would often be reunited on the airplanes,” writes Ardiles Gamboa in a chapter for 50 Años Después: Uprooted and Replanted in Exile, an upcoming anthology commemorating the experiences of Chilean exiles on the 50th anniversary of Chile’s coup d’état. “It was emotional and stressful as they waited on the tarmac because they didn't know if their family member was going to make it on the flight or not.”

The Ardiles' last family photo in Chile, 1975.

“In some cases, it was a huge relief, an immensely joyful reunification with family members that they hadn't seen in weeks, months or maybe even years. For others, it was a moment of complete distress with loud and explosive outpourings of despair and grief because their family members didn't make it on the airplane, which likely meant that they had been killed or had been disappeared or sent to another part of the world. They were not going to be able to travel with their families to this new home in Canada.”

Upon arrival in Ontario, her mother, an English teacher who had studied at the University of Chile, first went to work in a factory packaging tomatoes. Due to her English skills, she soon became a community advocate for many newcomers and eventually she went back to school to pursue graduate school in adult education. Her father held down various jobs including one at a meat-packing plant, before spending decades working as an assembly line worker, finding innovations to make some time for breaks or unconventional techniques to improve the flow of work.

At SFU, Ardiles Gamboa has mentored many students and colleague and has contributed her leadership and expertise to various university initiatives including community-engaged education and research, experiential learning and teaching, supporting SFU’s sustainability and healthy campus community initiatives.

Paola, second from left, with her son Diego, daughter Gabriela and father Sergio. / Photo by Vanessa Waugh

The Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards is the most recent acknowledgment in a string of awards. Earlier this year, she received SFU’s 2022 Warren Gill Award for Community Impact for her community engagement and her lifelong commitment to a more equitable, just and sustainable world through teaching, research and service.

Her inclusive approach to teaching and use of holistic tools such as art and dialogue to promote student and community wellbeing was also recently celebrated by the B.C. Teaching and Learning Council, which awarded her its inaugural West Coast Teaching Excellence Award in 2022.

In addition to her role as senior lecturer in the Faculty of Health Sciences, Ardiles Gamboa serves as special project advisor to SFU’s vice-president, people, equity and inclusion, leading the development of SFU’s first university-wide community of practice for equity practitioners.

“I am very grateful for my parents who sacrificed so much to give us a life of dignity and peace, one that now my children get to have. I also recognize that many communities in Canada continue to face violence today, in particular, the countless murdered and missing Indigenous women.”

Ardiles Gamboa was nominated by an immigrant woman in STEM and community champion Khristine Cariño PhD, who had never met Paola but knew of her work in the community.  The Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards is an annual honour that highlights inspiring stories of immigrants in Canada from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Ardiles Gamboa was the only Latin American honoured in 2023.