Faculty of Arts & Science students from three colleges crossed the stage at Convocation Hall to receive their degrees today, sharing the platform with honorary degree recipient Margaret MacMillan at the morning ceremony and with honorary degree recipient Peter Mansbridge in the afternoon.
Tian Nie studied pathobiology and physiology, but she’s just as passionate about the arts as she is about science. She directed the spirited Innis Choir and served on the executive of two other performing arts clubs. Her dedication resulted in a Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award as well as a Student Engagement in the Arts Award.
The arts are “universal in their language,” Nie says, “conveying difficult-to-articulate emotions and feelings to a broad audience. They’re an exploration of the question of what it means to be alive. Science is quite similar. It tells the story of discovery, of new things that we might not yet understand, but hopefully someday someone will.”
What was it about U of T, and Innis College in particular, that helped Nie foster her interdisciplinary interests? She credits the wide variety of opportunities available to students, from field courses to research courses and work-study jobs. Nie gained experience in a number of different labs, from washing pots for plant genetics to using a 3D printer to make implants intended to guide an optical fibre to a mouse’s spinal cord. While the implant didn’t end up working as predicted, Nie says the experience was valuable regardless of the outcome: “I learned about dealing with failure, but also how to succeed,” she says.
Donna Pan is the coordinator of Innis’ Orientation and the chair of Innis’ World University Services Canada (WUSC) local committee. For the past two years, she has run the Student Refugee Program at Innis College, which has raised enough funds to sponsor a new refugee student each year.
Pan credits the interdisciplinary majors in which she specialized – equity studies and diaspora & transnational studies with helping her to learn and grow as a person by mixing and matching a wide variety of courses to eventually narrow down her areas of interest. “I have always been passionate about human rights and social justice,” says Pan, who chose equity studies so that she could “make a difference on issues revolving around accessibility, inclusivity and of course refugee rights.”
Living and studying in a city as diverse as Toronto, especially as a person who is interested in transnationalism and diasporas, was an experience Pan was happy to share with some of the refugee students her efforts helped to sponsor. “Coming from the camps where refugees have not been exposed to such a wide range of cultures and ethnicities, I know that being placed in a new city is daunting enough; however, knowing that Toronto is such an inclusive space where everyone is accepted makes the process just a little bit easier.”
As a first-generation Canadian, Aadil Nathani says he is personally invested in social justice, justice reform, and immigration and refugee law, particularly “due to the interesting time we are living in, with a rise in nationalism sweeping over the West.”
For the Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award recipient, who graduated today with the Woodsworth College class of 2017, personal interests are closely aligned with his achievements — in academics, campus community organizing and extra-curricular activities. Nathani served two terms doing community outreach and as vice-president of finance on the Woodsworth College Students’ Association, was the president of the Criminology & Sociolegal Studies Students' Association, interim president of the Woodsworth Political Society, and coordinator for both the Woodsworth E-Mentorship program and the Woodsworth First-Year Mentorship Program. And he was captain of the Woodsworth Soccer team.
“I believe that education occurs not only within the classroom and textbooks but from real life experiences,” he says. “It is proven that students who are involved in extra-curricular activities also improve academically — and I am a personal testament to this. My last two years where I was heavily involved were my best two years academically.”
In addition to her double major in sociology and criminology & sociolegal studies, Sandleen Azam is a passionate and dedicated community organizer who co-founded Because We Care, an on-campus group that connects students to volunteering opportunities in community organizations.
The initiative “has been a labour of love right from the start,” says Azam, and has built a volunteer base of around 200 students since its inception. “This year we were able to create and deliver ‘Blessing Bags’ filled with basic hygienic necessities, to the homeless population in Toronto. It was amazing to have the idea come to life and see all the people we were able to help.”
Novera Hasan Khan, a Woodsworth student graduating with a major in political science and minors in sociology and economics, enrolled at U of T in 2013, just six months after immigrating to Canada with her family. Khan’s parents, a doctor and a professor of biochemistry in their native Pakistan, have taken positions outside their line of work in Toronto for the past four years in order to ensure their three daughters would have a promising future in Canada.
“They sacrificed their whole lives’ worth of work, education and relationships to ensure a better lifestyle for my sisters and I,” says Khan. “Their primary goal was to have their children study at the most prestigious university in Canada, and they are very happy that we have been successful in doing so.”
Khan’s younger sister is pursuing a double major in biology and global health at U of T, while her youngest sister is currently in high school and hopes to attend U of T too.
“I am interested in pursuing either constitutional law or international law —specifically immigration/refugee law,” she says. “Essentially, I hope to understand, and directly or indirectly impact the policies that effect vulnerable populations.”
(Below: Khan, Azam and Nathani/photo by Diana Tyszko)
Trinity College's Nathan Chan graduated today with an honours bachelor of science degree with a specialist in physiology and a major in pharmacology. He hopes to become a clinician scientist, a goal that would “involve obtaining both an MD and PhD — over a decade of school!”
“Some would find it daunting, said Chan. “But I’m looking forward to the journey both in school and of practising both science and medicine.”
But for Chan — who has dedicated himself to social justice advocacy for racialized and LGBTQ+ students — university has not been just been about coursework, studying and exams.
“We wanted to create a safe space for racialized students to discuss and validate each other’s experiences with racism and exclusion,” said Chan. “PoC@Trin facilitates community building and supports the voices of students attempting to create a space for themselves within the wider Trinity College community.”
Chan also served on the executive of Rainbow Trinity — an LGBTQ+ club dedicated to creating more positive spaces and fostering an open and friendly environment.
“My participation in social justice can be summed up as simply ‘doing the right thing’.” said Chan. “I am committed to the recognition of human rights and the promotion of social equity.”
Trinity's Sameen Zehra also graduated today with a major in peace, conflict & justice and a double minor in political science and contemporary Asian studies. The recipient of the 2017 Dean’s Student Leadership Award, Zehra was recognized for her work as a fundraiser and community leader.
The best part about winning the award for Zehra was sharing the moment with her parents.
“After the ceremony, they said to me: ‘can you believe we immigrated to Canada 20 years ago, and now we’re here?’” said Zehra. “They’ve taught me everything I know about hard work, staying humble and helping others whenever you can.”
As president of the University of Toronto Refugee Alliance — a student-led organization committed to raising awareness about refugee issues — Zehra has led fundraising initiatives that have raised $10,000 in support of the Red Cross and the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture.
“My interest in refugee issues stemmed from my research on the Syrian conflict in the Munk One program,” said Zehra. “After an entire year of writing about and conducting an interview project on the topic, I was very much invested in the issue of those suffering in this relentless war.
“I realized that it was not enough to be studying the conflict and its effects, and then letting my research collect dust after it had been graded. I wanted to get involved and contribute, even if it was in a minor way.”
Zehra is also involved in the community through her leadership at Sol Music — a student-run volunteer program that provides free, weekly piano and guitar lessons to students in Toronto’s Alexandra Park neighbourhood.
“I know from personal experience how much of a financial burden private music lessons can be,” said Zehra. “Like the children we teach, I also attended schools that couldn’t afford instruments for every student interested in music.
(Below: Zehra and Chan in the Trinity quad/photo by Diana Tyszko)