When Saad Shahid Shafiq graduates from the University of Toronto this week with a bachelor of arts degree, it will mark the fulfilment of a dream he thought he’d never achieve – a dream that’s now helping him realize his goal of helping others.
Shafiq, 36, credits U of T’s Transitional Year Programme for enabling him to attend university – an opportunity he made the most of by graduating with distinction with a specialist in philosophy, a double-major in Islamic studies and critical studies in equity and a minor in Indigenous studies
He compares the journey to convocation to climbing K2 – the most difficult mountain in the world to summit.
“I feel like I’ve truly accomplished something,” he says.
Shafiq, who immigrated to Canada when he was 24, was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was 10 years old and attending primary school in Karachi, Pakistan. While he recalls being aware that he wasn’t learning and progressing at the same rate as his peers, he says he struggled to understand why. “I didn’t know how to read or write,” he says. “It made me feel out of place. It was very lonely, and it affected how I interacted with people. I felt like I was in a box.”
After his teachers held him back a year, Shafiq’s mother had him tested for a learning disability. At the time, children with disabilities in the Pakistani school system did not receive tailored instruction or accommodations. To improve his chances of success, Shafiq’s parents enrolled him in Mark College, a boarding school in England that catered specifically to students with learning disabilities. He credits his mother, in particular, with getting him the help he needed.
“She was my champion,” he says. “She still is.”
Shafiq later finished high school and returned to Karachi. A few years after that, he immigrated to Toronto with his family. He worked odd jobs and concluded that, “If I ever wanted a stable job – a good job – I needed a post-secondary education.”
But where to apply? He was fairly new to Canada, almost 30, and had a learning disability. Who would take him?
Enter U of T’s Transitional Year Programme. Established in 1970, the program is designed for adults who don’t have the usual university qualifications. Each student in the eight-month program is provided with an academic adviser, funding options and a space to work as they take courses to prepare them for attending first year of university. Program participants can also use any of the resources available to other U of T students.
Shafiq, took two years to complete the program because of his learning disability. “It was very gruelling,” he says. After finishing in 2016, he was admitted to Woodsworth College. He remembers the prospect of attending the top-ranked university in Canada both thrilled and terrified him. “It was such a unique opportunity, though, so I had to grab it,” he says.
Shafiq picked classes he was passionate about – mostly related to equity – figuring this would make him more willing to put in the hard work he knew would be required to get good grades. “I enjoyed 99 per cent of my courses because I had wonderful professors who worked with me and didn’t let me feel like my disability was going to get in the way,” he says.
Like many students, Shafiq found the switch to online classes due to the pandemic, a challenge – especially keeping himself motivated. He noticed a greater demand for support from U of T’s Accessibility Services, where, due to his disability, he was registered to receive academic accommodations. “I had to be my own advocate sometimes,” he says.
Shafiq’s determination – and resilience – did not go unnoticed. Jill Carter, an assistant professor at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies who first met Shafiq when he began the Transitional Year Programme, says he showed himself to be a deeply engaged student who demonstrated “the highest ethical standards” and “an exemplary work ethic,” looking beyond his own challenges to help others.
“He has always been a mentor to his peers and conducted himself with the utmost professionalism and courtesy.” Carter says.
When asked about the highlights of his seven years at U of T, Shafiq says they all relate to his activism on behalf of people with disabilities. Working with Students for Barrier-Free Access, a student-led, volunteer organization that advocates for equity and inclusion at U of T, Shafiq helped students with disabilities apply for financial support under the Ontario Student Assistance Program. In 2019, he won the David Clandfield Scholarship in Scholarly Activism, awarded to a high-achieving student entering fourth year in equity studies who “demonstrates the potential to contribute to social justice issues.”
In 2018, Shafiq participated in a conference at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), where he spoke with two other presenters at a 90-minute session on “Queer Identities and (Dis)ability Discourses.” He was also on the student advisory committee for the 2019 Hancock Lecture at Hart House, titled “Moving Toward a Disability Justice Revolution,” and was a member of the Woodsworth College Students’ Association.
Underlying all his work is Shafiq’s credo that no one should feel unequal to anyone else for some aspect of themselves – whether they are disabled, racialized, a member of the LGBTQ2+ community or any other marginalized group in society.
Following graduation, Shafiq says he would like to find work helping new immigrants to Canada or students who are struggling with mental illness. As an immigrant to Canada himself, Shafiq says he also understands the profound value of education for newcomers, particularly in a rapidly changing work environment.
“It’s a great way to develop a network and improve your sense of self-worth,” he says. “And U of T is one of the best universities. It certainly helped me.”