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by Eden Debebe

Emigrating from China to Surrey, B.C. at the age of 11, Sally (Si Jia) Jiao was constantly told she had a lot going against her. She didn’t speak any English, had to quickly adjust to Canadian culture and was repeatedly told she would never amount to much because of the language barrier.

Jiao was also born with ectrodactyly, a limb malformation causing her to only have five toes. It appears in 1 out of every 90,000-100,000 births, with high profile celebs like model Hailey Bieber and journalist Bree Walker having varying levels of the condition.

Fast-forward roughly 10 years, and Jiao has graduated from high school with honours and become top of her class at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. But in an interview with OMNI Television, she says the journey to success and self-acceptance wasn’t easy.

“I was bullied for several reasons, one because of my ectrodactyly condition,” Jiao said.

“During gym classes when my fellow peers saw my feet they would always make fun of me so that made the experience very unpleasant. They knew that I couldn’t understand the words that they were saying so they would often insult me straight to my face and I wouldn’t know until class was over.”

From there, Jiao dedicated herself to erasing the stigma around ectrodactyly, filming a short documentary on the limb malformation. She says interviewing other people living with the condition helped her work through the shame she felt and allowed her to accept herself for who she was.

“I really made that documentary to raise awareness around the condition,” Jiao said.

“I really wanted people to understand that that disability doesn’t define who you are. I really wanted to demonstrate that regardless of what you have, you can be successful with or without the condition.”

Jiao also said she found a new home and sense of belonging through her local library.

“I’ve been part of the library for a really long time, because they really helped me overcome my language barrier,” she said.

“I wanted to pay tribute back to the community by being a youth ambassador. Giving back has been a really crucial part of my identity.”

She also dedicated herself to her studies, finishing pre-calculus in Grade 9 and qualifying for a $40,000 Beedie Luminaries scholarship to cover her university fees.

Beedie Luminaries is a B.C. social-profit group that offers scholarships and mentorship support to students struggling financially.

“It was definitely really rewarding because I hadn’t expected to receive that scholarship,” said Jiao, who is studying finance and mathematics at UBC.

“Going into university, it’s nice to know that I’ll be able to independently support myself,” she said.

In a statement to CityNews, UBC president Santa Ono said Jiao’s presence has only improved the student culture at the school.

“I am so proud of Sally Jiao,” Ono said.

“Not only is she an outstanding student, she’s also active in the community, as shown through her work with World Vision UBC and other groups. In all she does, Sally exemplifies the ethos of the Beedie Luminaries Program and shows why the program plays such an important role in providing life-changing opportunities for deserving students.”

A student, bookworm, immigrant and social advocate, Jiao says she wants people to know she’s more than her condition and show others in a similar situation that they can achieve just as much as anyone else.

“Don’t be scared — You never know what you are capable of achieving unless you try.”