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'How do I want to make change in the world?': U of T Mississauga valedictorian focuses on equity and health

After witnessing the negative health impact of cultural and language barriers in her community, Habon Ali says she began wondering how she could make a difference (photo by Rukiya Abdulle)

Bet on yourself. Embrace failure. Lean on your friends and family. Those are a few of the lessons that Habon Ali plans to share with her classmates as the valedictorian for University of Toronto Mississauga’s Class of 2020.

Looking at Ali’s accomplishments, it might be tough to see failure. On June 2, she graduated with high distinction from the Honours Bachelor of Science program, earning a double major in biology and environmental science. Over the past year, she managed a challenging portfolio as vice-president, equity, on the executive leadership team of U of T Mississauga’s student union and – since 2018 – Ali has advised Prime Minster Justin Trudeau on issues concerning Canadian youth.

But Ali is the first to say that her accomplishments haven’t come easily.

Ali is the third of seven children born to Muslim Somali parents who arrived in Canada as refugees from Somalia’s civil war in the 1990s. As a teen, Ali accompanied her parents to medical appointments for her brother, who lives with a rare genetic disorder. Those meetings sparked her interest in science and medicine, but the dismissive way some health-care professionals treated her parents was what set her on the path to health equity and community advocacy.

“Cultural and language barriers impacted the health of the people around me, and it was frustrating to see,” says Ali. “My volunteering was directed by issues that I saw in my community and wondering what I could do about it.”

Over the past five years, Ali has made the daily trek – 1.5 hours each way by public transit – to the U of T Mississauga campus. While the commute was long, Ali says the size of the campus helped her forge strong connections with students, staff and faculty.

Ali was encouraged to stretch herself through U of T Mississauga’s research opportunity program, which gave her the chance to gain new research skills under the guidance of mentors, including assistant professor of geography Vincent Kuuire, Fiona Rawle, associate professor, teaching stream, and lecturer Leanne De Souza-Kenney of the department of biology.

Those projects challenged her intellectually and demonstrated how her studies could intersect with her passions for science, health and advocacy.

“I’m passionate about health equity and understanding the experiences of different populations,” Ali says of her work with Kuuire to study the relationship between mental and physical health for Eritrean immigrants to Canada. “It’s exciting to identify an issue, and work towards supporting those groups.”

She is grateful for the continued support of her family. “They’re my biggest cheerleaders,” she says. “Especially my siblings. I don’t know where I would be without them.” She also found support from a close-knit group of friends on campus.

“We are all first generation students to go to university, we are all in STEM, and we all come from racialized backgrounds,” says Ali of her U of T Mississauga friends. “We navigated these experiences together – took classes, did research, and applied to grad school, and now we’re graduating together, too.”

Ali is one of two student ambassadors chosen to represent the Class of 2020 during a pre-recorded virtual convocation event that will be aired at noon today for more than 15,000 graduating students and their families around the world. Ali says she is excited to celebrate the milestone – and to address her U of T Mississauga classmates at an online celebration on June 10.

“Everyone is headed in different directions. It’s sad that we won’t have a traditional send-off, but I think this will be a close second,” says Ali. The self-confessed “hugger” holds hope that an in-person celebration might not be too far in the future.

With her undergraduate studies behind her, Ali continues her work with youth, equity and health. After completing her summer internship with a MaRS Discovery District youth employment initiative, Opportunity For All Youth, Ali will pursue a master’s degree in global health at McMaster University.

“How do I want to make change in the world?” she asks. “I see that the things I like – migration, health policy, equity, global relations and international policy – are coming together. The future is really wide open.”

 

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