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This U of T Loran Scholar has been a volunteer and activist since grade school

“We see refugee crises around the world and I’ve always been passionate about helping those people because lots of times, their voices are not heard, or people speak for them,” says Nika Asgari (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

As early as grade school, Nika Asgari has been passionate about social justice, helping refugees and promoting multiculturalism.

Since coming to the University of Toronto in September as a Loran Scholar, a prestigious four-year award valued at more than $100,000, Asgari has not wasted any time making an impact. She is the first-year representative for the Hart House Social Justice Committee and the U of T Young Liberals. Off campus, she volunteers with the Iranian Women’s Organization of Ontario.

“The fact that I can walk down the street and hear 10 different languages at one time is beautiful,” says Asgari, a University College student who is studying political science and international relations. “In Toronto, you truly get to meet people from around the world and hear their stories, and that’s the best way we can move forward as a country and as global citizens – to really understand where everyone comes from.”

Asgari, who is from Vancouver, is the daughter of Iranian refugees who fled to Canada in the 1980s to escape war. Their story, as well as those of others with similar experiences, ignited in Asgari a desire to help. In grade school, she mentored international students and founded a club to send volunteers to the local hospital and fundraise for disaster relief.

“We see refugee crises around the world and I’ve always been passionate about helping those people because lots of times, their voices are not heard, or people speak for them,” she says.

“They need someone to advocate for them who knows what they are going through and isn’t spreading hateful rhetoric.”

Asgari’s impressive volunteer work, which also included coaching soccer for disadvantaged youth, was among the reasons she was selected as a McCall MacBain Loran Scholar, which recognizes character, leadership and dedication to community service in young Canadians with high grades.

In addition to an annual $10,000 living stipend and matching tuition waiver, the award includes a dedicated mentor and up to $10,000 in funding for summer internships.

In Asgari’s case, the mentor is Kim Echlin, a novelist and former Giller Prize short-listed nominee who teaches creative writing at U of T’s School of Continuing Studies.

“She is outstanding,” says Asgari. “I’m really lucky.”

Fifty-nine Loran Scholars have chosen to attend U of T since the award was established in 1988 and Asgari is one of 12 currently enrolled, but the only one in first year.

As much as she’s enjoying campus life and her community work, Asgari says she is just getting started.

She’s hoping to join the intramural soccer team and continue exploring the city’s diverse offerings, including the vibrant food scene.

“The food here is amazing. It’s been a problem for my bank account, but I’m OK with it,” she says with a laugh.