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U of T mentorship program helps Black youth pursue post-secondary education

Students in the Imani academic mentorship program work on homework (photo by Joseph Burrell)

Since starting at Cedarbrae Collegiate Institute in fall 2017, Grade 9 student Leandra Allen has been researching which university she wants to attend in 2022. 

“Even if I have a lot of time before I have to do something, you’ll still see me researching,” says Allen, who emigrated from Jamaica to Canada in 2015 and is interested in studying sociology and physiology.

“I really want to try the sciences because I love experimenting,” she says. "I really enjoy testing things to see how they really work.” 

Because of her keen interest in university, one of her high school teachers suggested she check out Imani, an academic mentorship program run by the department of student life at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Now in its 12th year, the program pairs Black U of T student mentors with Black youth in the East Scarborough community. 

Since 2005, more than 1,000 students between Grades 1 and 12 have taken part in the after-school program. In that same time, more than 500 U of T Scarborough students have volunteered as mentors, facilitators and co-ordinators. This year alone, 91 students from six local schools have taken part – one of the largest cohorts since the program started – while 47 mentors and 13 student staff and leaders, all from U of T Scarborough, have volunteered.

Imani is important because it’s a one-of-a-kind program that helps youth in racialized and underserved communities in Scarborough directly, says Dorian Grey, a fourth-year U of T Scarborough student and volunteer in the program.

“There aren’t many programs that overwhelmingly show Black leaders in a university setting, so having this is important for Black youth in our community,” says Grey.

From October to April, U of T student leaders meet with mentees once a week. During their meetings, mentees talk about their week in a group format before breaking out into smaller groups for homework sessions. Following the breakout sessions, there are workshops led by U of T facilitators or guest speakers on topics ranging from options for post-secondary education to professional opportunities. 

In recent years, the program has evolved to feature workshops that more pointedly focus on themes such as identity, critical thinking and civic engagement in the context and unique experiences of the Black community.

“We are trying to bring more opportunities to our Black student population here at [U of T Scarborough] in the way of education and experiences,” says Elvis Ibrahimovic, Student Life’s community engagement co-ordinator.  

U of T Scarborough student volunteers also receive personal development through training opportunities, like a recent workshop held by Amorell Saunders N’Daw, U of T Scarborough's director of governance, and An Evening with Black Professionals, where 20 professionals talked to students about their careers and handling complex work situations that connect to race.

Allen’s mentor Tele Kapkirwok, a third-year international student from Kenya, joined Imani two years ago. She initially expected to attend the weekly program to help students with homework, but her involvement quickly grew into something much more.

“A big moment for me was when I saw that Imani gets students excited about post-secondary education and they see for themselves that it’s attainable – they can do it and there’s space for them,” she says.

The Imani program continues to nurture community ties by inspiring youth in Scarborough (photo by Joseph Burrell)

Many of the mentors and mentees also relish the energy and passion that are emblematic of the program.

“The energy that you feel when you step into the environment every single Wednesday – you want to be there,” says Donocan Iwelomen, a Grade 12 student at St. John Paul II.

That energy was especially evident when those in the program went to a February screening of Black Panther, and also collaborated on creating a video series about the experiences of Black Canadians with Regent Park Focus Youth Media Arts Centre.

The Black Panther experience carried over into this year’s Imani academic mentorship recognition ceremony, the final event that marks the end of the program.

“Imani forever,” said Grey to applause while dressed as the titular character from the movie.

During the ceremony, students received laptops from NavaCup, an organization founded by Ganesh Navaratnarajah and dedicated to raising funds to buy computers for marginalized students. Graduating students in the program also received a small scholarship towards their post-secondary education from Toronto-area businesswoman Damiris Moro.

This year, kente cloth sashes – a traditional cloth from Ghana that is used to mark significant rites of passage – were awarded to Imani mentees and mentors of the year for the first time.

For Allen, this past year will especially stick out because of the many memorable experiences and friendships she made in the program.

“I can’t wait to come back next year,” she says.