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U of T student brings communities together for change

Works to promote peace in Sri Lanka

Fourth-year peace and conflict studies student Jothi Shanmugam is helping to work for peace in her native Sri Lanka. (Photo by Henry Feather)

Jothi Shanmugam has turned her questions about identity and war into action by bringing communities together for change and creating new opportunities for students. Her contributions have led her to be named this year's recipient of the Dean's Student Leadership Award in the University of Toronto's Faculty of Arts & Science.

Shanmugam, a fourth-year student in criminology and peace and conflict studies, is being honoured for her leadership in projects such as the Young Canadians Peace Dialogue on Sri Lanka, Students for International Development and the First Generation Program.

The Trinity College student was born in Sri Lanka and came to Canada as a refugee when she was seven. She says she grew up with some identity issues about being an immigrant and starting her life all over again. Her curiosity about why her life had to be uprooted led her to choose peace and conflict studies at U of T.

"I wanted to learn why conflicts unfold in ways that leave behind animosity and rip communities apart.  I had too many unanswered questions about conflict resolution because it is close to my heart, it's part of my identity, it's who I am."

Shanmugam is being honoured, in part, for her role with the Young Canadians’ Peace Dialogue (YCPD), an initiative of the Mosaic Institute. The Institute has worked to bring Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim Sri Lankans together to develop a plan to promote peace in Sri Lanka.  At the encouragement of Shanmugan and another student, Natale Dankotuwage, the Institute launched the YCPD. Shanmugan served on the steering committee for the initiative, which was later joined by the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, to bring policy makers from places such as the department of foreign affairs to engage with students.

Shanmugam also participated in writing and submitting a policy paper on helpful development and peace initiatives to both the Sri Lankan and Canadian governments. Last summer she presented this model of diaspora peace building to representatives from various foreign embassies and high commissions, including those of Canada, the UK and Switzerland in Colombo.

"Jothi undertakes these ambitious goals earnestly and with great success," said Ron Levi, director of the Trudeau Centre. "In my estimation Jothi is part of a new cohort of U of T students, and Canadians more generally, who are working to promote civil discourse and ethnocultural understanding."

Since the peace talks, Shanmugam and 14 other students from the program have created the current Build Change campaign in which Singalese and Tamil students are working together to raise $25,000 to build wells in the war-affected northern regions of Sri Lanka. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has indicated it would be prepared to contribute to the Mosaic Institute for a trip to Sri Lanka so that the team will be able to see the sites that the money is going to as well as meet with various officials.

"This is bringing like-minded people together," said Shanmugam. "It’s allowing people to re-imagine a different community, a different way of doing things, to be more proactive. It's an opportunity to engage with everyone despite ethnic or religious differences and a way to learn that loss and grief are shared experiences. It's better to put all that energy towards something positive because our hopes for the future are the same."

Shanmugam has also proved to be a key figure as a project manager in Students for International Development, which was created by former Student Leadership Award-winner Michael Beeler. As part of the medical team, she arranged to get $5,000 worth of medical supplies shipped to partnered health facilities in Kenya. She then spent four months in Maragoli, Kenya, where she ran public health and HIV/AIDS workshops.

Upon learning that the village couldn't afford to pay for glaucoma and cataract treatments, Shanmugam started a network between the internationally funded Sabatia Eye Hospital and the Ministry of Health to create "eye camps." These have since provided eye care to over 1,000 Kenyans since the initiative began in 2009.

She also worked in the First Generation Project as a peer mentor, helping students navigate the campus and develop academic skills. The experience enabled her to communicate with students who, like her, are the first in their families to attend university.

"Jothi is among the very best student leaders I've interacted with at U of T," said Rahul Bhat, co-ordinator of the First Generation Project. "I feel that Jothi's leadership is rooted in a sincere sense of compassion and an interest in improving the lives of others."

Shanmugam will be presented the award at the Outstanding Achievement Awards ceremony on April 17.

"I share this with so many people," Shanmugam said. "The award encourages me to keep going. It reminds me that this is just a start."