A Rhodes Scholar and student leader, U of T grad Ikran Jama brought her community into the classroom

Ikran Jama, a Rhodes Scholar, says "growing up in a multicultural community gave me the understanding to consider issues from perspectives that are not always recognized in academia" (photo courtesy of Ikran Jama)

When Ikran Jama took public transit home from school each day, the changes in landscape were a constant reminder of the stark differences between her two worlds.

As the bus careened forward, the glass buildings of downtown, the neo-Gothic residences and the vast green spaces of the University of Toronto were replaced by the modest houses, concrete apartment buildings and eclectic storefronts of the west-end Toronto neighbourhood that Jama called home.

Contrary to the headlines, which often equated her neighbourhood with crime, Jama’s community was a place where she and her six younger siblings played tag and grounders at the park, where Somali mothers gathered together for tea and where neighbours welcomed people into their apartments with open arms.

Her community was never far from her mind as she completed her undergraduate education at U of T, pursuing a double major in international relations and criminology and sociolegal studies, with a minor in African Studies. And she plans to keep her community close even as she graduates this week and embarks on a Rhodes Scholarship this fall at the University of Oxford.

“The community was in the classroom with me,” Jama says. “Growing up in a multicultural community gave me the understanding to consider issues from perspectives that are not always recognized in academia.

“A question I always ask myself is: ‘Why do I do the things that I do?’ One reason is that I don’t want other kids to continue to grow up with the same issues that I did.”

Jama arrived on campus as a University of Toronto Scholar, a distinction awarded upon admission for high academic achievement and outstanding performance. Still, in the beginning, she says she suffered from “imposter syndrome” and questioned her place in the classroom.

“My grades weren’t up to par with my expectations,” Jama says. “I started getting into my own head, thinking about how I looked different from everyone else and how my responses in seminar weren’t being met as positively as I thought they would be.”

She was also jarred by class discussions of crime rates and police responses in which her neighbourhood was cited as a case study, and she was disheartened by the narratives surrounding her community – a community that had inspired her to come to university in the first place.

As her community was analyzed via numbers and statistics, Jama noted a glaring lack of human perspectives. “The most important voices were absent from that room,” says Jama, who sought to provide those missing viewpoints.

“I know mothers whose sons were arrested, and I understand the heartaches that they faced,” Jama says. “I have community members who have lost their children. I know the people behind these issues and what is holding them back – the emotions and the sacrifices.

“These are people who can easily be siloed in society, when what is needed for real change is to understand them on a human level.”

As she spoke in class about the issues affecting her community, Jama became more confident in the value of her opinions. Through the Vic One program’s Lester B. Pearson stream, in which first-year students take part in intimate seminar discussions exploring the nature of public life and citizenship, Jama slowly found her voice in the classroom.

She credits many of the professors and friends she met through Vic One with helping her foster a sense of belonging on campus. Her tightknit group of friends has always been there to “hype each other up,” she says, and her professors constantly encouraged her to share her ideas in class.

Jama enjoyed her Vic One experience so much that she transferred to Victoria College, which she calls her “home base.” She is the recipient of Victoria College’s Margaret Slater Scholarship and Elizabeth Anne Sabiston Scholarship for high academic achievement.

Jama says she was initially nervous about being accepted as a valued member of the U of T community, but that she was also eager to get involved from the start.

Foti Vito, a member of Trinity College who went to high school with Jama, recalls her leading him to the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) office during their first week on campus. She would go on to serve on the ASSU executive for all four years, including the last two as president. Vito has also been an executive member for three years.

“Ikran always leads with empathy and compassion,” Vito says. “She makes you want to emulate the same goodness that she brings to the team. She is extremely dedicated to advocacy, especially for underrepresented students.”

In her first year, Jama launched Student Success Day, a conference that welcomed marginalized Toronto high school students onto campus for a day of workshops highlighting the opportunities offered by a post-secondary education.

“At the time, I was still in the mindset of asking, ‘Do I belong?’” Jama says. “So, I wanted others to look at the space and feel like they belonged before even enrolling here.”

As ASSU president, Jama oversaw a $500,000 budget and managed a team of more than 60 academic course unions, advocating for policies that affect 26,000 undergraduate students. At the onset of the pandemic last year, she and her team created the ASSU Student Emergency Fund for students requiring immediate financial relief.

“I have been truly impressed by Ikran’s sheer brilliance, social grace, generosity, leadership talents and humility,” says Marieme Lo, an associate professor in women and gender studies at U of T and the director of the African studies program.

“What struck me in Ikran are her unique work ethic, outstanding and impactful community citizenship, intellectual acumen and her ethics of care during the pandemic that all shine through her invaluable contributions to various student communities,” says Lo, who has taught and mentored Jama.

Last November, Jama was among just 11 Canadians to be awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford this coming fall. U of T graduate Jeffrey Fasegha also received the honour.

She plans to study criminology at Oxford before returning to U of T, where she has been accepted to the Faculty of Law.

Jama aims to one day work as a lawyer in the communities where she grew up – and has even considered entering politics as a way of achieving reforms for her community.

“I want to be someone who is able to provide legal services for my community at a lower cost, to speak the language and understand the people who are coming to seek help,” Jama says. “If someone comes into the office nervous because they don’t trust the system, I want to be that face for the community.”

The work would be a continuation of what Jama has been doing for years.

In high school, she worked at an immigration aid centre, where she helped Somali refugees translate documents, complete paperwork and navigate the system. In university, she volunteered at her local community centre to engage with Somali youth, whom she has tutored and mentored with the goal of empowering them to feel confident in their academic pursuits.

She says her work with Somali refugees often reminds her of her family’s own journey to Canada. It is a story that her mother has told her countless times: In the 1990s, amid civil war in Somalia, her grandmother told her mother to leave the country – and they had found a way to get her to Canada. On the plane ride to a new continent, her mother stared out the window and longed for her family.

“My mom found it very hard to feel like she belonged in the country,” Jama says. “To come to a world so unfamiliar to her, and to raise our family despite all these challenges – it makes me feel heartbroken and inspired at the same time.”

Jama says her mother has always pushed her to excel. When she stayed up until 3 a.m. writing a paper, her mother would bring her a hot cup of orange pekoe tea with a combination of spices and cinnamons that seemingly only her mother knew how to conjure.

As Jama prepares to exchange her daily bus rides across the city for a flight to the United Kingdom, she is determined to learn the recipe for the special drink.

“That’s my mom’s tea,” she says. “I need to take it with me.”