Calgary

Ghanaian immigrant once trapped between worlds finds her passion helping others

When she was young, Nicole M'Carthy felt trapped between two cultures. Born in Ghana and raised in Canada, she endured racial bullying and almost lost sight of herself.

Nicole M’Carthy helps young girls from immigrant families get through some of the hardships she faced

Nicole M'Carthy struggled with her dual identity as a young girl, but now counsels others to help them through the same issues. (Sarah Green)

In partnership with Mount Royal University's Bachelor of Communication-Journalism program and the Calgary Journal, CBC Calgary is publishing a series profiling some of the immigrants and refugees who moved here and how they're helping shape our city. 


When she was young, Nicole M'Carthy felt trapped between two cultures. Born in Ghana and raised in Canada, she endured racial bullying and almost lost sight of herself. 

But her negative experiences helped set the stage for a youth mentorship program she founded called Girl Talk, aimed at girls from immigrant families.

M'Carthy and her family first moved from Ghana to the Toronto-area in 2001, when she was just two. In 2007, M'Carthy's family moved to Vaughan, a suburb of Toronto, for better educational opportunities.

'I didn't know what to be'

For M'Carthy, the move to the suburbs was challenging.

In Toronto, she was surrounded by people that looked like her and shared her culture. In Vaughan, she was labelled "different" because of the colour of her skin.

Trying to fit in with people from two cultures, M'Carthy felt trapped.

"I would go places with my Ghanaian friends and I felt too Canadian and I would go to school and I felt too Ghanaian, and they would hurt you for it," she said.

"So I felt like I had to cut off one culture. I didn't like the idea of being both."

Living under this double standard, M'Carthy became increasingly frustrated with who she was.

"I didn't know what to be. I just let [both identities] go in a way where I was like, 'I can't do this,'" she said.

"Every time I heard someone say something bad about either Ghana or Africa, I internalized that and it became an insult about Nicole."

Rediscovering her roots

In the midst of her struggles, M'Carthy visited Ghana in 2009 for the first time since moving to Canada.

"[Ghana] reintroduced me to myself… I was able to reaffirm my identity in something beyond the colour of my skin," she said.

"It also helped me expand my story beyond that of negative stereotypes."

This reconciliation with her Ghanaian identity was significant for M'Carthy. Even though the hardships didn't disappear when she returned to Canada, she felt grounded in who she was.

Now, years later, M'Carthy has fully come to terms with the beauty of having two identities.

"I embrace both of them, I hold both of them, and I carry both of them with me when I engage with people, when I talk to people, and just the way I walk in this world."

M'Carthy's mother Florence recognizes the painful challenges her daughter went through, but believes they have affected her character in a positive way.

"[Nicole] has a great passion in seeing people succeed," she said. "When she looks at our community, she thinks that there is more to be done."

Building a new community

After moving to Calgary in 2012 at age 14, M'Carthy met people who supported her and made her feel part of the community.

Following her struggles with racial bullying, this was truly meaningful for M'Carthy.

A significant mentor for M'Carthy during this time was her Grade 9 teacher, Giovanna Longhi. Throughout the time Longhi has known her, she has seen M'Carthy's character develop.

"[Nicole's] gift is not to make it about her. It is always to make it about how her personal experience can inform others," said Longhi.

"Everything in her life, whether it's negative or positive, is turned into something greater and positive."

Girl Talk

M'Carthy's passion to see people succeed led her to create a program called Girl Talk, which is run out of the All Nations Full Gospel Church.

M'Carthy is not the sole mentor in the Girl Talk program, which focuses on helping girls in immigrant families aged nine to 13 develop a strong sense of self-esteem. 

"I really like the idea of sisterhood where you learn from each other and you grow together."

Even though M'Carthy has always had a desire to help people, it was a Calgary non-profit that helped her focus that desire.

I do it because I love it. When it comes to being a leader, you have to take your passion and magnify it.- Nicole M'Carthy

Youth Central is a Calgary based volunteer organization that challenges young people to make a difference in their community.

"Through Youth Central, I've taken ownership of the city. I have a sense that Calgary is my city and my job is to make it as great as it can be," said M'Carthy.

Kiki Akinbobola, a personal mentor to M'Carthy, helped her organize a career match event where over 80 immigrant youth were matched with 24 workplace professionals.

She has witnessed M'Carthy's leadership in action.

"I think she is becoming more confident in herself and what she's capable of doing," said Akinbobola.

"In seeing that she is capable of those things, she is seeking out more opportunities to use those qualities. It's really great to get a front-row seat in that."

Recognition for leadership

As a result of her work, M'Carthy has received numerous awards, including the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award and an Immigrants of Distinction Award.

Her mother Florence believes the reason her daughter has received these awards is because her heart is in the right place.

"[Nicole] is not doing things for recognition. She's doing things because she wants to do it and enjoys doing it. So when the recognition comes, it's just a bonus."

Ros Doi, the program director at Youth Central, agrees.

"A lot of people volunteer in high school and they'll put it on a resume to get into university," Doi said.

"But Nicole has the actual need to do something great in her community and she has continued to do that now which is amazing."

Next chapter

M'Carthy is currently a second-year student at the University of Calgary, majoring in health and society. She doesn't know where she will end up, but believes her desire to help people will lead her to the right place.

"I try to put myself in positions where I'm passionate. I don't put myself in positions to build my resume. I don't put myself in positions to look good," said M'Carthy.

"I do it because I love it. When it comes to being a leader, you have to take your passion and magnify it."


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