A new student-led academic award is poised to provide more financial support and mentorship for Black graduate students at the University of Toronto.
Excellence is Black is a joint undertaking between students from U of T’s Rotman School of Management, the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Law. In addition to inspiring and supporting future generations of Black talent at the university, the initiative aims to connect Black graduate students across campus and celebrate their achievements.
“Often, you hear two main things when you survey Black students: We don’t have access to role models, and we don’t have access to finances,” said Frank Otabor, a second-year MBA student at the Rotman School of Management and one of the initiative’s founding members.
Looking to make a difference, he reached out to the Black students’ associations in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Law and received an enthusiastic response.
Noroh Dakim, a second-year medical student and member of the organizing committee, also felt that community, in addition to financial support, was crucial for Black graduate students at U of T.
“There are very unique experiences that come with being a Black individual in academia, or indeed on any career path,” said Dakim, who is also a member of the U of T Black Medical Students’ Association. “Finding a community where you feel like your experiences are heard, validated, recognized and appreciated is so important.”
Black graduate students, faculty, alumni and community members held an inaugural award gala virtually on March 27. The celebration of Black excellence featured an array of speakers from U of T and beyond who spoke on “overcoming over-commitment burnout,” building self-confidence and more.
In her opening remarks, U of T Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr acknowledged the importance of breaking down systemic barriers to create a more equitable and inclusive campus.
“The University of Toronto can only be great if brilliant people from every community feel like the university is a place that will welcome them,” Regehr said. “And the University of Toronto can only be great if these brilliant people have the supports to succeed once they are here.”
Regehr described some of the steps the university has taken in recent years to address the underrepresentation of marginalized communities, including the creation of 100 faculty positions for Black and Indigenous scholars. Over the past three years, the number of access and outreach programs to bring new students to the university has also increased, she said.
Regehr expressed gratitude for the efforts of graduate students who put together the Black is Excellence award.
“In addition to what this is doing for current students, you are building a foundation of inclusive excellence for the future,” she said. “Because of students like you, we are on the right path and the future looks bright.”
Colin Lynch, the founder of the Black Opportunity Fund, an endowment directed by the Black community for Black Canadians, delivered the event’s keynote speech. Attendees also heard from Dahabo Ahmed Omer, the executive director of the BlackNorth Initiative, a coalition of business leaders across Canada who are working to create better representation for Black Canadians in boardrooms across the country.
In virtual networking sessions, participants discussed the specific challenges facing Black graduate students and Black professionals entering the workforce.
Rhonda McEwen, director of U of T Mississauga’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology and the special adviser to the vice-president and principal on anti-racism and equity, was one of the workshop facilitators. She is due to begin her term as the campus’s vice-principal, academic and dean this summer.
McEwan, who worked in digital communication media for 15 years, shared her experiences with navigating corporate life and finding confidence in her talents. “Don’t let yourself be burdened by those ideas of tokenism,” she told students in a breakout session.
Clockwise from top left: Excellence is Black organizers Frank Otabor, Noroh Dakim, Rebecca Barclay Nguinambaye and Novalee Davy.
The burden of representation was top of mind for Sandra Osazuwa, president of the Black Graduate Students Association, who led one of the workshops on being Black in academia.
“Often, as we move up the ranks, we become the only ones available,” said Osazuwa, who is pursuing a doctorate in counselling and clinical psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and is the only Black student in her program. “I get asked to a lot of speaking opportunities, which puts a lot of stress on me – versus my peers – and interferes with what I should be doing as a student.”
She hopes the discussions will help administrators see the need for adequate compensation for equity, diversity and inclusion work.
While the event was focused on graduate students, seats were reserved for undergraduate and high school students considering their academic futures. “So often we see these negative images of marginalized groups that are perpetuated by the media,” said Stephane Martin Demers, a fourth-year student who is president of the Faculty of Music Anti-Racism Alliance “And so often the way Black people see themselves is dependent on how the white community sees them or how non-Black people see them. So, our vision is not filtered through our own understandings.”.
Martin Demers, who is also part of U of T Scarborough’s Modern-Day Griot Project, said events like Excellence is Black can help create a new narrative that lifts up Black communities. “What a conference like this does is show Black youth that they can do it – that there is a place for them at U of T,” he said.
Excellence is Black is currently seeking donations to meet its initial award fund goal of $100,000. Nominations for the inaugural awards are expected to open by the end of the academic year. Awards will be given to students, both domestic and international, with demonstrated financial need and a proven commitment to community leadership. U of T’s Office of the Vice-Provost, Students, Rotman School of Management, Faculty of Law and the School of Graduate Studies are among the award’s initial sponsors.
“My vision is that it becomes a recurring event, and that we create that framework to make it sustainable,” said Otabor, who will be graduating with his MBA this spring. “We want to keep chipping away at those barriers until they are no longer there.”