U of T Scarborough grad creates spaces where equity, mental health and music thrive

'Star on the rise': Delicia Raveenthrarajan has won awards for her advocacy and efforts to make music accessible to all

New U of T Scarborough graduate Delicia Raveenthrarajan is a mental health advocate, public speaker and music educator (supplied image)

Delicia Raveenthrarajan always loved singing and making music – until that passion waned when she was in high school.

Raveenthrarajan, who is now graduating from U of T Scarborough with a bachelor of science, was recovering from surgery after transferring to a performing arts program at 16. Post-op complications and other health issues caused her to miss music rehearsals, and she was told she was "too sick to be a performer" – so she stepped away from the arts.

“There are some spaces where well-being is second priority to the quality of music. Some people think that to be excellent you have to sacrifice personal values and well-being, but that's a really ableist notion,” Raveenthrarajan says.

Even her non-musical peers were forgoing well-being in pursuit of high grades, and just as the music world seemed focused on everything Western and classical, she found mental health supports skewed the same way.

So Raveenthrarajan became a staunch activist for student mental health and culturally responsive care – she joined clubs, advocated at the G7 Summit, became a public speaker and penned an article published in Teen Vogue, landing the Governor General’s Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers in 2016 for her work.

She eventually returned to her original high school, and when her former teacher asked her to conduct the school choir, she took up the baton. While conducting at a spring concert, she unwittingly impressed members of the leadership team at Sistema Toronto, a free after-school music program for students living in underserved communities. They offered her a job as teaching-artist-in-choir, and for the past four years, she’s led classes where well-being is the purpose – not the price – of making music.

“It’s really important that all of the students I work with are seen as whole human beings first. Their well-being takes top priority," Raveenthrarajan says.

Raveenthrarajan was a panelist at the launch of Soundlife Scarborough, a new centre for music-making at U of T Scarborough that she was instrumental in developing (photo by Alexa Battler)

In warmups, Raveenthrarajan asks students to stand only if they’re able. She invites them to speak with her any time. She teaches not only how to perform pieces from a range of genres, but the social, cultural and political context behind them – classes on Indigenous music, for example, are grounded in talks about Truth and Reconciliation, and for an upcoming performance of a song about social justice, her students wrote their own final verse. She was inducted into the Scarborough Walk of Fame in 2018 by winning its Rising Star Award for her impact as an activist and educator.

Upon graduating high school, Raveenthrarajan recognized a familiar teaching approach in U of T Scarborough’s music and culture program – the curriculum delves beyond Western classical music into a spectrum of genres, and balances lessons on performance with those on culture, socio-political concepts and community engagement. She double-majored in mental health studies and music and culture – programs she says are both ultimately “about the human experience.”

During her undergrad, she took part in several music and arts clubs and initiatives, and played cello in the U of T Scarborough string orchestra. She also worked for years as a research assistant with the music and culture program, and helped conduct a landscape review of music programs across North America that guided the development of Soundlife Scarborough (SLS), a new centre for creating music-making opportunities on and off campus.

“She was instrumental in the creation and development of Soundlife Scarborough,” says Lynn Tucker, SLS lead and associate professor, teaching stream, in U of T Scarborough's department of arts, culture and media. “I don't think we would be where we are today without her energy, insight and the work ethic she brings to the project.”  

In 2019, Raveenthrarajan attended a conference of the Ontario Music Educators Association, and while she was struck by the vibrancy of the community, she noticed a Eurocentric focus on music creation and knowledge. She wrote a letter to the organization’s board and became its equity, diversity and inclusion director in her second year at university.

“A lot of the time, social justice work is trauma-centered, and it's important to address those issues – but it's also important to centre well-being and spend time intentionally building the things that move toward joy, liberation, community,” she says.

“When your identity is argued, excluded or marginalized, existing, taking up space, creating and doing the things that bring you joy are also acts of revolution. I think well-being is at the centre of that.”

This year, Raveenthrarajan was shortlisted for a Rhodes Scholarship and a Fulbright Scholarship, two of the world’s most recognized and prestigious grant programs. She’ll begin pursuing her master’s in music education at U of T’s Faculty of Music in a few months, and is considering dabbling in the French horn when she's not in class.

“She's quite inspiring,” Tucker says. “She's such a bright light. Her star is definitely on the rise.”

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