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.