They called themselves "the O'Leary girls" — a group of 30 young women from the Philippines who came to Canada in 2010 to work at a fish plant on Prince Edward Island.  

Six years later, most have become permanent residents - including Marie Antoinette Pangan who received a scholarship this month for her work with temporary foreign workers and is now studying to become a nurse.

Pangan, 33, recalls first arriving in P.E.I. in 2010.   

"It was really, really hard because at that time we didn't have any friends," recalled Pangan. "It was just ourselves working at a fish plant."

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Marie Antoinette Pangan on her first day on P.E.I. standing in front of the house in O'Leary where she would live other fish plant workers. (Submitted)

The thirty women lived together in what they called "the big house".  She says it was hard work but they also met some Islanders who helped them, even letting them stay in their home for free.  The women knew that to be able to apply for permanent residency, they needed to find full-time employment, not the seasonal work at the fish plant.

Searching for the elusive full-time job

After the fish plant in O'Leary, Pangan came to Charlottetown to look for a job, with help from the Philippine consul.

She worked at a hotel in Charlottetown, but her employer wasn't able to offer her full-time hours, year-round.  She found that opportunity working at McDonald's and applied for permanent residency.

"I'm really so happy when we finally have a chance to put in that application," recalled Pangan. "Because it's a lot of hard work, it's a lot of effort and money for us."

A year and a half later, her application for permanent residency was granted.

"It's a dream come true for me," she recounted with a smile. "I can finally say that I can stay and live here in Canada."

'I have a brighter future'

Becoming a permanent resident also gave her the opportunity to apply to UPEI to study nursing. As a permanent resident, she does not have to pay the higher tuition of an international student which she says she could never afford.

"I can work anywhere I want to now," said Pangan.  "Now I can see I have a brighter future with what I'm doing."   

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Marie Antoinette and her 13 year old son Gwyn. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

She was also able to finally bring her 13-year-old son, Gwyn, to live with her in Canada. 

"I think that's the happiest moment of my life," recalled Pangan. "When I finally knew I can take my son with me here in Canada and live with me."

"At first, he says it's quiet, P.E.I.'s quiet," she laughed. "But now he has friends and he's getting used to it, and he's happy that he's with me as well."

The O'Leary girls find a future

Pangan refers to each group of temporary foreign workers as a "batch", with between 30 and 50 per batch.  She says most of the first, second and third batches of the O'Leary girls from the Philippines now have their permanent residency, and about 70 per cent of them still live on P.E.I.  

"It's a big help because most of those girls who got their permanent residency are now stable," she said. "They have full-time jobs. They work mostly in nursing homes."

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Marie Antoinette Pangan taking part in the DiverseCity event as part of the Island's growing Filipino community. (Submitted)

Pangan continues to support fish plant workers arriving on the Island looking for a better life, including her sister who currently works at a seafood plant in Summerside.

"I just want to say to the temporary foreign workers to aim big, dream big, everything is possible," said Pangan.

'She is such an inspiration'

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Marie Antoinette Pangan celebrates her 30th birthday in Canada with friends. (Submitted)

In March, Pangan was awarded the Vincent Murnaghan scholarship by the Cooper Institute. Selvi Roy, member of Cooper Institute since 2012 and a past winner of the Murnaghan scholarship, helped select Marie Antoinette Pangan.  

"It comes naturally to her, as naturally as one would sip coffee in the morning," explained Roy. "She doesn't think twice about it and that's what appealed to us as the selection committee."

"She is such an inspiration," added Roy. "She has proven to herself and now to so many others that it is possible - hard work, perseverance, commitment - and you can go get your goals."

"What we get to hear in the media is that temporary foreign workers are either eating up jobs that are here or that they are being treated unfairly. I'm not saying any of it is untrue but here is a person whose life shows that something else is possible."