When she arrived at the University of Toronto as an international student from the United States, Laura Gallo quickly spotted a glaring omission among the various groups and associations on campus.
“My friend and I noticed there were a lot of clubs for women in STEM or women in business, and obviously those are very important in their own right, but there wasn’t an association for all self-identifying women on campus,” says Gallo, who is graduating this spring from New College with a bachelor of arts degree.
“We wanted to create a place all women on our campus could count on, and have conversations about all sorts of different topics.”
So, Gallo – a double major in peace, conflict and justice studies, and ethics, society and law – co-founded the U of T Women’s Association (UTWA) in September 2019. The organization has since grown to more than 200 members.
The first year of the UTWA saw Gallo and her colleagues pour their efforts into an inaugural conference that was held in February 2020 to support women from all academic backgrounds and build momentum for the new association.
Then the pandemic hit.
In response, the UTWA last summer created a mentorship program for women in their third and fourth years, pairing them with a professional in whatever field they were interested in. The women met with mentors, one-on-one, once a month for the entire academic year, says Gallo. The program also included U of T professors from for students who were considering graduate studies or a career in academia.
“We knew we really had to change and evolve based on the circumstances we were in,” Gallo says. “We were thinking about how students could propel their professional careers forward, especially during COVID-19.”
“The mentorship program seemed like a really great way to fill that gap, and I think it will only continue to grow moving forward.”
Gallo (back row, fourth from right) and the New College orientation team in 2019 (photo courtesy of Laura Gallo)
Other networking events organized by the association are designed to encourage women to overcome any reluctance to highlight their achievements when they are competing in the job market.
“A lot of women worry about coming across as arrogant,” Gallo says. “A lot of women also face the challenge of being taken seriously in meeting rooms and board rooms. So we’ve always tried to invite women as guest speakers who have been able to climb the ladder, and can help give others more confidence.”
Gallo, who is from West Deptford, N.J., says it took time to feel a sense of community at U of T , but now considers the university to be part of her family.
“Having lived in a small town, I frankly wasn't exposed to a lot,” says Gallo. “I wanted the chance to meet new people in a brand-new place. At U of T, I knew I could study at a globally recognized university while living in one of the most diverse places in the world.”
Gallo will begin a master of education degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education this fall, with a focus on learning strategies for supporting students who may be facing barriers to higher education.
“I've been able to witness first-hand the unique challenges each student population faces, whether they are international students or the first in their family to attend university, or if they're women, or if English isn’t their first language,” says Gallo.
“It just led me to want to continue to get more involved and have an impact. I think it’s a matter of supporting these students in the most equitable way possible and giving them the tools to succeed.”
Gallo says other students can find their own way to make a difference.
“My advice would be: Don’t hesitate if you see something you want to change, whether it's on campus or in your community. Put your whole heart into it. You’ll find it’s so fulfilling. Even if it only impacts one single student –at the end of the day, it's worth it.”