The Convocation Stories

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Berkal David Berkal

BY ELAINE SMITH

U of T has been David Berkal's studio for the past four years, but the world has been his canvas.

Berkal, a graduating peace and conflict studies student, has used his studies as the backdrop for creating community service programs that build bridges of understanding between cultures. His work as one of the founders of Operation Groundswell (www.operationgroundswell.com) and the Canadian Roots Exchange (www.canadianroots.ca) is among the reasons he received the Faculty of Arts and Science Dean's Student Leadership Award.

Before beginning his university studies at U of T, Berkal took a year off to travel to Ghana where he worked to set up Operation Groundswell, a program offering students volunteer opportunities abroad that allow them to experience a new culture first-hand while giving something back. The not-for-profit organization began by offering a single volunteering trip annually but the demand has led to real growth. There are 14 trips to all parts of the globe scheduled this year.

"Students are looking to go abroad in a meaningful way before, during and after university and this fills that need," said Berkal, who serves as the organization's executive director. "It's more than a one-time program. We're building a network of like-minded people."

A couple of years into his university career, Berkal and an international relations student joined forces to create the Canadian Roots Exchange, a vehicle for forging ties between non-aboriginal and indigenous people and showcasing the strengths of First Nations communities. With the help of Professor Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, the project has grown beyond campus boundaries to include students across Canada.

"All aboriginal communities are so different from each other but they share a common history of oppression from the state," said Berkal. "Trauma has been passed down from older generations but there is also incredible resiliency and good humour.

"You see how much aboriginal communities have to offer Canadian society." Both programs grew organically out of Berkal's own passions.

"I have always been interested in international issues, global development and entrepreneurship," he said. "These are a natural marriage of the two."

Entrepreneurship will take most of Berkal's energies during the coming months, leaving him no time to slow down after convocation. He is one of three dozen students nationwide selected to take part in the inaugural The Next 36 entrepreneurship program, a unique national program that aims to transform Canada's most promising undergraduate students into high-impact entrepreneurs, thus increasing Canadian prosperity. While working on team projects, the students are exposed to some of North America's top experts in entrepreneurial education.

When the program ends Aug. 15, Berkal will finally be able to take a deep breath and make time for some recreational travel. Meanwhile, he's thankful to those who have helped him along the way.

"None of it has been done alone, that's for sure," he noted. "I couldn't have accomplished this without some wonderful people and networks."


 


 

KuanySimon Kuany

BY KELLY RANKIN

For Simon Kuany, a graduand of the Lassonde Mineral Engineering Program, life's challenges are all a matter of perspective.

Kuany was part of the exodus from South Sudan in the 1980s, one of approximately 20,000 boys ranging in age from five to 13 who were forced to flee their villages to escape Sudan's civil war. Collectively, they are known as Sudan's Lost Boys.

He said he understands why someone from the west would think the boys were lost, but for Kuany it was simply part of growing up in a war zone. "Everything was dangerous. It was a way life," he said.

"From our perspective we weren't lost, we were part of a struggle," Kuany added. "We were thinking of the next 10, 20 years and what will happen after this."

Kuany said he thinks he was around five or six years old when he left his village, Panyagoor in South Sudan, in search of safety. He's also unsure of how long the journey took.

"I didn't have an idea of time, I didn't know how long a week or a month was," he said. Eventually, Kuany and the other boys arrived at a refugee camp operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kakuma, Kenya, in 1992. Here he received a primary school education and was able to attend a Kenyan secondary school thanks to sponsorship provided by a group of Jesuits.

In 2005, with the help of the World University Services of Canada (WUSC), he came to Toronto to attend university.

"Getting a degree is something I had been looking forward to for a long time," he said. "Everyone in South Sudan is hungry for learning and I was no exception."

Talking with Kuany, it becomes apparent how much he belies the nickname "Lost Boys." Kuany is motivated, clear about his own purpose and focused on the future of South Sudan.

In January, South Sudan voted to secede from the north and form its own country. On July 9 the Republic of South Sudan will become the world's newest internationally recognized country and Kuany wants to play a significant role in its development.

"Our leader, [the late John Garang, leader of Sudan People's Liberation Army] called us the 'seeds for the country,' " he said. "No matter how many problems we had, he knew one day we would be very helpful, and today, many are starting to return."

Kuany plans to stay in Canada for a few more years to gain adequate experience before returning home. He wants to put his skills to work and be able to share what he has learned and tutor others.

It's very important to get the engineering degree [at U of T]. It's for my country, not only for me," said Kuany. "I will make sure I make use of it and help my people back home." Kuany believes South Sudan can learn a lot from Canada's successes.

"South Sudan is starting from scratch, there is no infrastructure, no roads, no government institutions, no schools," he said. "It's not nation rebuilding, it's nation creation."

"Everything I do there will be from what I learned here," said Kuany. "Canada is going to be a big part of whatever success we have."

 


 

BhasinRitu Bhasin

BY ANJUM NAYYAR

Executive MBA graduand Ritu Bhasin made a complete career change while enrolled in the Rotman School of Management, morphing from lawyer to diversity specialist, all while working as a full-time lawyer on Bay Street.

"I decided to do my executive MBA so that I could further develop my leadership and management skills," said Bhasin. "I also wanted to take my business acumen to the next level and the support that I received was excellent. You have a full-time person running the program, a full-time person dedicated to providing you with career services support. The professors were always available. It was just excellent in providing the level of support that we would need to succeed."

While at Rotman, she took full advantage of the program and engaged in more than just academic pursuits. She sat on the Rotman external review committee and the values initiative working group and was also a course instructor on the importance of diversity in non-profit governance.

Today, Bhasin has her own diversity consulting firm, bhasin consulting inc., that provides organizations with strategies on people management and organizational leadership, with an emphasis on diversity and the advancement of women. She's worked with professional services firms, academic institutions, professional associations and not-for-profits. Bhasin also acts as a career and leadership coach and has now coached hundreds of individuals, focusing on empowering them to leverage their strengths and interests in their development.

"I was inspired to start this firm because of the EMBA program," she said. "By being in the program it really helped me to develop my skills and spread my wings."

She also found a home at Rotman, teaching there in the area of diversity and governance.

"I care about diversity because it speaks to what is at the core of humanity and our interconnectedness, despite our differences."

In addition to earning a degree this spring, Bhasin was the recipient of a 2011 Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award for her leadership work at Rotman. The awards were established in 1994 by the University of Toronto Alumni Association and the Division of University Advancement to recognize students who have made outstanding extracurricular contributions to their college, faculty or school or to the university as a whole.

Her talent doesn't end there. She enjoyed her yoga classes so much that in her free time she decided to become a yoga instructor.

"I don't tell people normally that I'm a yoga instructor, but I'm a huge yoga fan," said Bhasin.

"It's part of my culture. I went to India and did my training at an ashram. But I don't teach. I just wanted to deepen my practice and better understand the yogic way of life."

Upon graduation Bhasin will be continuing to grow her own consulting business. For more information on Bhasin visit: www.bhasinconsulting.com.

 


 

Cecil-CockwellMalcolm Cecil-Cockwell

BY ANJUM NAYYAR

As Malcolm Cecil-Cockwell, a 2011 forestry graduand, gets ready to walk that important walk across the Convocation Hall stage to receive his degree, he's reminded of the fact that his mother Wendy Cecil, chancellor of Victoria University, walked across that same stage 40 years ago.

"It's kind of neat that she was the first to graduate from a university in her family and it's nice to continue that down the line myself and graduate from the same university," said Cecil-Cockwell.

Cecil, one of the pioneering women to serve on boards of directors in Canada, is Victoria's 13th chancellor and the first woman in the university's history to hold the office. Elected for a three-year term, the chancellor is the ceremonial head of the institution, presiding at convocations and conferring degrees, as well as serving as Victoria's chief ambassador.

Cecil formerly served as chair of Governing Council and has been an active volunteer at U of T for 27 years. Cecil-Cockwell has fond memories of his mother's career at U of T because he attended a wide variety of U of T events with her as he was growing up. U of T was an everyday part of his family life.

Cecil said she first came to Vic in 1967 as a nervous 18-year-old and the college became a home away from home during her undergraduate years.

"It is wonderful to still be a part of the campus all these years later. It gives you a rich sense of timelessness to be among the same buildings where you studied when you were an undergraduate. Now I'm soon to be 63 and both my son and I will be a part of the June convocation. It truly feels like a such a rare privilege and a blessing."

Cecil is delighted and proud that her son will follow her footsteps across the Convocation Hall stage as he begins his own life as a U of T and Victoria College alumnus.

"I graduated 40 years ago this June and I wasn't thinking about a child of mine ever doing that," said Cecil. "At the time it was a miracle that I was graduating because no one in my family on either side had ever been to university, so the fact that I now have a son graduating from university, and also the college I graduated from, is really a wonderful feeling. I'm very, very proud of him."

Cecil-Cockwell transferred to U of T after spending a year working. He said he always knew U of T was the best choice for him and Victoria College was the only place he wanted to be. He chose forestry as his major because he worked in forestry sector analysis and economic research and got really interested in the financial side of forestry.

"It's a nice merger of the side of me that really likes conservation work and the part of me that really likes business. Then there's a part of me that really just likes being in the bush. The Faculty of Forestry has a really good program and does a great job matching up students with professors in field work."

Cecil-Cockwell is pursuing graduate studies in forestry at U of T.

 


 

YoungErica Young

BY KELLY RANKIN

If typical means outstanding, then Erica Young is a typical U of T graduand.

Young is an intelligent, articulate and lively young woman whose love for the law is infectious. This spring she will realize a lifelong ambition when she receives her juris doctor (JD).

"Growing up with a reverence for law and the idea of being able to work towards that, to become someone who is respected and relied upon for her advice and expertise, that has always attracted me," she said.

When Young applied to U of T's Faculty of Law she knew admission would be competitive. Instead of being intimidated, Young made it her challenge to do well as an undergraduate.

"Knowing that I would be in a program that was competitive to get into, I knew I would be among other people who valued the same things I valued, which are excellence and hard work," said Young.

Excellence and hard work are qualities she comes by honestly.

Forty years ago, Young's parents came to Canada from China and opened their own fish and chip restaurant. As the first generation from her family to attend university, Young and her two older sisters watched their parents work tirelessly to provide them with opportunities they themselves never had. "They are incredibly supportive parents," she said.

Throughout her schooling, Young took part in extracurricular activities, such as co-chairing the faculty's Women in Law group, and participated in volunteer activities with Pro Bono Students of Canada and the Civil Litigation Project with Pro Bono Law Ontario.

Young said volunteering is a social norm in law school and she is "always mindful of the professional obligation to give back to the community."

During her first year, she gave legal education workshops at St. Stephen's Community House in Kensington Market. She would explain legislation — for example, the Safe Streets Act — to an underserved community.

Providing people with access to justice and helping them to understand and utilize the system are important to Young. "It empowers people to take control of their own legal matters," she said.

Young also credits her volunteer experience with giving her direction for her career. She writes the bar exam in June and begins her articling term in August at top ranked Canadian firm McCarthy Tétrault. Although Young is thinking about specializing in civil litigation, she said she wants to keep an open mind.

"For the immediate future I want to concentrate on learning to be a lawyer, to be a good litigator," she said.

When asked if she had advice for anyone considering applying to law school, Young replied, "If you're up for the challenge, it's absolutely rewarding. It was the most intellectually challenging thing I've done, but also the most satisfying."