A woman whose brother's brain tumour prompted her to study neuroscience and psychology at the University of Toronto.
A commerce student whose interest in social entrepreneurship led him to get involved in a number of U of T clubs.
Both Olivia Rennie and Richard Zhang are this year’s U of T recipients of the Governor General's Silver Medal, bestowed on the most academically outstanding graduating students.
A third student, Allie Sinclair, was U of T's top graduating student and also a recipient of the Governor General's Silver Medal.
In the summer before her first year at U of T, Olivia Rennie’s brother was diagnosed with a brain tumour. That experience helped fuel her passion to help people.
“All of these things in life make you a stronger person, and it really gives you drive and that inspiration to try and make a difference in other people’s lives,” she says.
Rennie, who currently works as a research student at the Hospital for Sick Children – where her brother, who is now doing well, was treated – graduated from U of T Scarborough with majors in neuroscience and psychology.
Rennie credits Rutsuko Ito, an associate professor in the department of psychology, as an important contributor to her success. Ito offered her the opportunity to work in the Ito LiMBiC Lab as a research student. Rennie also received the Psi Chi Undergraduate Research Grant for her research in approach-avoidance behaviour to better understand mental illness.
“It’s a whole other experience getting to do research in the lab versus learning in the classroom,” says Rennie. “Being in the lab really made me want to do research after this, but also combine that with clinical work.”
Rennie was also a teaching assistant in the Mathematics and Statistics Learning Centre for three years. Sohee Kang, an assistant professor, teaching stream, encouraged Rennie in this aspect of her studies.
With all that Rennie has going on in her academic life, which also includes being an ambassador for the Centre for Teaching and Learning, she’s also found time for extracurricular work. She is a volunteer with the Enabling Accessibility Fund Youth Pilot Initiative. Partnering with her hometown of Ajax, she and her team received a $10,000 grant to aid in making the community more accessible.
“It really gives me the energy to keep on going even when I don’t think I can,” says Rennie. “You really see how small things can make a difference in other people’s lives.”
Now that she’s graduated, she plans on taking a year to get experience and apply to medical school, where she hopes to specialize in genetics.
Richard Zhang (centre) with Innis College Principal Charlie Keil (left) and Innis College registrar Donald Boere (photo by Chiao Sun)
What advice does the winner of one of the country’s most prestigious academic awards have for students who may want to follow in his footsteps? In short, don’t sweat it too much.
The secret to his exceptional GPA? The Rotman Commerce graduate says it’s not all about studying.
“I don’t think I do anything special compared to other students when it comes to studying,” he says. “While I care about school, I don’t take my studies overly seriously, stress myself out, or put unnecessary pressure on myself. If I had a strategy or tip, it would probably be that I try to have a good school/work-life balance.”
For Zhang, part of that balance came from participating in student organizations that resonated with his interest in social entrepreneurship. Roles with Enactus University of Toronto and the Rotman Commerce Innovation Group gave him a way to blend his personal interests with his academic talents, which he further honed as an associate with the Toronto Student Investment Counsel (previously the Hart House Investment Club).
Outside of school, however, the soon-to-be investment banker found equilibrium in pursuing his hobbies of tennis, watching films, and reading up on 19th-century history. A recent trip to Europe allowed him to experience at least two of the three, when he was able to attend both the Cannes International Film Festival and the French Open.
Zhang’s success at U of T has certainly not been out of the blue. A native of Vancouver, he chose U of T because he was awarded a National Scholarship, which covered his tuition and fees for the duration of his degree. Professor David Goldreich, director of Rotman Commerce, sees that choice as a great benefit to both Zhang and the Rotman Commerce program.
“Richard has been a terrific student,” he says. “He came here on this wonderful scholarship to U of T, developed his talents in class and shared them with others through his student involvement, and is now on the cusp of launching a successful career. We’re all really, really proud of him.”
Richard begins that new career this week as an investment banking analyst with Lazard, a global investment firm.
When asked for his parting words of wisdom, Zhang advises students to make the most of their undergraduate years: “University is over faster than you realize. Have fun, enjoy your time here, and get involved in the community.”