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Three to watch: Convocation 2014's city builders

Nishi Kumar, Erika Sagert and Francesco Petrisano

More than 12,500 students are expected to cross the stage at Convocation Hall this June, receive their hard-won undergraduate or graduate degrees, and join the ranks of the University of Toronto's more than half a million alumni around the world.
That's more than 12,500 unique stories of dedication, struggle, creativity and triumph to celebrate - from those who held part-time or even full-time jobs while studying, to those who juggled family and volunteer responsibilities, launched their own companies, or published leading research.
While most of those stories will only be shared among family, friends, classmates and mentors, U of T News asked faculty and staff for their suggestions of grads who are global citizens, health leaderscommunity builders, entrepreneurs, education leaders and city builders to watch in the years to come. 
Below, writer Dominic Ali shares some of the stories of U of T's city builders. 

Nishi Kumar

Nishi Kumar, 22, just received her Bachelor of Arts degree with majors in Environmental Geography and Urban Studies. During her final year, this Winnipeg-raised resident worked as a research assistant on a community project in Toronto’s low-income Regent Park neighborhood.

Four years at U of T have also made their mark on Kumar’s approach to life.

“Being surrounded by classmates, teachers and colleagues from dramatically different backgrounds was often challenging, but always rewarding,” she says. “I was exposed to so many new perspectives and had to re-assess my own.”

Although she’ll graduate this year, Kumar won’t be going far. She’s enrolled in the masters program at the U of T’s Dalla Lana School for Public Health where she hopes to research how housing availability, distribution of services, and employment opportunities affect the health and well-being of urban residents.

Kumar was first attracted to the U of T because of its range of programs and learning opportunities. And she pursued her diverse interests, taking courses in everything from philosophy to health to geology.

So does she have any advice for incoming students? There are lots of ways to learn, she counsels, such as internships, research opportunities and campus publications that can help students meet new people and develop new skills.

Getting involved in different things really opened her eyes to the role of cities and the people who make them.

“I’m graduating U of T with a broader, more nuanced view of the world than when I started,” says Kumar. “And that’s definitely a good thing.”
Erika Sagert

For Erika Sagert, 21, who just earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and Urban Studies, the University of Toronto is all in the family.

"My family has a long history with U of T which always drew me to the school growing up,” she says.

She isn’t kidding. Her great-grandfather graduated with a degree in Business in 1932, her grandfather graduated from Civil Engineering in 1953, her mother graduated from U of T in 1982 with a degree in French and German, and her older brother recently graduated in 2013 with a Civil Engineering degree.

Although she’s grown up in the U.S., Dubai, and Norway, she currently calls Calgary home. This fall, she’ll be moving to Vancouver to start a Masters in Urban Planning at the University of British Columbia.

Sagert counts a class called Experiential Learning in the GTA as her most memorable educational experience. She was placed for eight months at the Canadian Urban Institute as part of a research team working on the newest installation of the Value of Investing in Canadian Downtowns Project.

Through the course she gained hands-on experience and actively contributed to growing research which looks at the significance of a city's downtown.

She’s also got some tips for incoming students: “Do not be afraid to take a few courses that do not seem like your particular strength. By taking some chances on courses which just simply sounded interesting to me, I was able to tap into abilities which I did not know I possessed.”
Francesco Petrisano

Francesco Petrisano, 21, recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts double major in urban studies and environmental geography. While at U of T, Petrisano interned with the arts non-profit Artscape, where he mapped the existence of “art deserts” throughout Toronto.

His work will help Artscape fulfill its mission to make creative spaces available to artists and organizers that transform communities.

But his current path wasn’t always smooth. In his first year Petrisano wasn’t admitted into the U of T’s faculty of architecture. “This was the first time I faced the reality of rejection, and this in turn pushed me to redeem myself three years later when it was time to apply for graduate school,” he says. “I knew that I had one more chance at achieving my dream to become an architect, and I didn't want anybody but myself preventing me from doing so.”

This September he starts his Masters of Architecture degree at the University of Calgary, with the eventual goal of becoming a fully practicing architect.

Petrisano credits U of T’s diverse student body with helping him develop as a person. He says being exposed to fellow students from a variety of different cultures, religions and countries helped him realize the value of his studies.

“I did not take my education for granted, knowing that some of my fellow classmates traveled the world to be in the same position as me.