U of T will hold first-ever Black grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony

The event is be­lieved to be only one of its kind in Canada


Univer­sity of Toronto stu­dent Nasma Ahmed was on an in­tern­ship in Cal­i­for­nia a cou­ple of years ago when a friend in­vited her to a spe­cial col­lege event.

It was held at U.C. Davis and the oc­ca­sion was some­thing Ahmed had never heard of — a cel­e­bra­tion hon­our­ing African-Amer­i­can grad­u­at­ing stu­dents.

“I re­mem­ber walk­ing into the space and thinking, ‘what in the world is this?’ ” re­calls Ahmed, 21. “I didn’t even know this was a thing.”

Two years later, Ahmed is mak­ing it “a thing” at U of T, which on Thurs­day will hold its first-ever Black grad­u­a­tion, be­lieved to be the only one in Canada.

The oc­ca­sion, ex­pected to at­tract100 grad­u­ates from all three cam­puses in down­town Toronto, Scar­bor­ough and Mis­sis­sauga, along with their fam­i­lies and friends, will fall on the last day of a grad sea­son. Stu­dents in the spot­light will in­clude those who have just com­pleted un­der­grad­u­ate, Mas­ter’s or PhD pro­grams.

“We’re hop­ing this event will in­spire other Black stu­dents,” says Ahmed, who is grad­u­at­ing with a Bach­e­lor of Arts de­gree in pub­lic pol­icy and city stud­ies at the Scar­bor­ough cam­pus and will at­tend her of­fi­cial con­vo­ca­tion Mon­day.

Or­ga­niz­ers also want to let un­der­grads and Black high school kids know that “we’re here and there is a com­mu­nity here, and you can be sup­ported through­out your years at U of T.”

In host­ing the event, U of T is fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of a num­ber of U.S. col­leges. In May, Har­vard Univer­sity in Bos­ton held its first com­mence­ment for Black stu­dents.

Last Oc­to­ber as she pon­dered her fi­nal year, Ahmed mused about the idea. By Fe­bru­ary she had joined forces with fel­low stu­dent Jes­sica Kirk to turn it into re­al­ity.

The two co-or­ga­niz­ers wrote up a pro­posal and pitched the univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tion in Fe­bru­ary.

U of T was quickly on board and contributed fund­ing, says Kelly Han­nah-Mof­fat, vice-pres­i­dent of hu­man re­sources and equity, who stresses the event is com­pletely stu­dent driven.

“I think the ini­tia­tive be­ing shown by these stu­dents is com­mend­able,” she says.

The num­ber of Black stu­dents on cam­pus has been his­tor­i­cally small com­pared with the di­verse city that sur­rounds it.

But Han­nah-Mof­fat says the event will send the mes­sage “that Univer­sity of Toronto is a place for Black stu­dents to come and study at the un­der­grad­u­ate level and the grad­u­ate level and po­ten­tially as post-docs, (which) cre­ates a pipe­line for fac­ulty and staff.”

Kirk, 23, who is grad­u­at­ing with a Bach­e­lor of Sci­ence in psy­chol­ogy, says she’s ex­cited at the op­por­tu­nity to in­crease vis­i­bil­ity for Black stu­dents.

At univer­sity, “it’s very dif­fi­cult to find peo­ple who not only look like you but are go­ing through the same type of ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Kirk, who be­gins a Mas­ter’s pro­gram at U of T’s On­tario In­sti­tute for Stud­ies in Ed­u­ca­tion next fall.

“The higher up you climb, the harder it is to find your­self re­flected in those aca­demic spheres.”

It’s a sen­ti­ment that An­thony Briggs, 34, shares af­ter four schools and years of classes that just cul­mi­nated in a PhD from OISE.

Briggs, whose her­itage is Caribbean, was raised by his dad in Bramp­ton and is the first in his family to earn a post-sec­ondary de­gree.

Briggs was one of a hand­ful of Black stu­dents to re­ceive his doc­tor­ate at his OISE con­vo­ca­tion last week and is look­ing for­ward to cel­e­brat­ing again Thurs­day. He said mark­ing the group’s achieve­ments is pos­i­tive “be­cause we’re not cel­e­brated.”

But Briggs added it’s also crit­i­cal to fo­cus on chang­ing the path­way for Black stu­dents who en­rol but don’t fin­ish univer­sity, by find­ing out why and ad­dress­ing the hur­dles.

Kirk and Ahmed say the event is part of a big­ger strat­egy needed to sup­port Black stu­dents ev­ery step of the way through mea­sures like schol­ar­ships as well as tran­si­tional pro­grams.

Kirk calls it “an en­try point” to ad­dress­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion and such sys­temic bar­ri­ers as the lack of men­tal health ser­vices that are sen­si­tive to the needs of Black stu­dents, fi­nan­cial chal­lenges and the lack of Black fac­ulty and cur­ricu­lum that in­cludes a Black per­spec­tive.

“Black stu­dents, along­side In­dige­nous stu­dents and other marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties are of­ten pushed out of the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem at a very young age,” adds Ahmed.

“I think it was im­por­tant for us to rec­og­nize, ‘You sur­vived it. You made it through a sys­tem that is of­ten not meant for stu­dents like us. You made it to the fin­ish line.’ ”

Boost­ing the ranks of Black stu­dents has been a long­time chal­lenge for uni­ver­si­ties, par­tic­u­larly in such fac­ul­ties as medicine, which at U of T this year in­cluded only one first-year stu­dent who iden­ti­fied as Black.

Dis­mayed that stu­dents of African or Caribbean her­itage have con­sis­tently hov­ered at only 1 to 2 per cent of each class, the fac­ulty has an­nounced a new ap­pli­ca­tion process aimed at en­cour­ag­ing more ap­pli­cants, which will be in effect for the 2018-19 school year.

While they will be sub­ject to the same rig­or­ous aca­demic re­quire­ments, there will be changes in the process, in­clud­ing more Black rep­re­sen­ta­tion on in­ter­view pan­els.

One of the big­gest chal­lenges for Ahmed and Kirk was es­ti­mat­ing the num­ber of grad­u­ates their cel­e­bra­tion would at­tract, be­cause race sta­tis­tics aren’t tracked.

Last year, U of T be­came the first Cana­dian univer­sity to com­mit to a vol­un­tary stu­dent cen­sus that would pro­vide race-based data, but it’s still a year or two away.

The Thurs­day fete will fea­ture speak­ers, stu­dent awards for con­tri­bu­tions to re­search, com­mu­nity ser­vice, lead­er­ship and athletics, and recog­ni­tion of all grad­u­at­ing stu­dents.

Whitby ob­ste­tri­cian Dr. Jean-Placide Rubabaza wel­comes the chance to cel­e­brate Black stu­dents in higher ed­u­ca­tion.

“I think it’s a great idea,” says Rubabaza, pres­i­dent of the Black Physi­cians’ As­so­ci­a­tion of On­tario, which has re­cently fo­cused on men­tor­ing youth who are look­ing to pur­sue medicine.

Their bar­ri­ers are not abil­ity or in­tel­lect, he says, but a re­sult of un­equal ac­cess to the ap­pli­ca­tion process, fund­ing, or a net­work of peo­ple to guide, share ex­pe­ri­ence and help nav­i­gate the sys­tem.

The im­pact of mea­sures like men­tor­ing is al­ready show­ing re­sults, Rubabaza says.

He says 24 Black stu­dents are ex­pected to en­ter first-year medicine pro­grams at On­tario uni­ver­si­ties this fall, up from four in 2016.

News of the grad­u­a­tion was also greeted with en­thu­si­asm by War­ren Sal­mon, pres­i­dent of the On­tario Al­liance of Black School Ed­u­ca­tors, who said he hopes it will in­spire more youth to ap­ply and stick with school.

“They need to see pos­i­tive role mod­els and see peers and (older) peo­ple who’ve been suc­cess­ful,” Sal­mon says.


Jes­sica Kirk, left, and Nasma Ahmed are or­ga­niz­ing the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Black grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony.

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