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U of T students who crushed it in 2018

The Indigenous Studies Students' Union held a powwow in the Goldring Centre in March. Hundreds of people showed up to celebrate Indigenous communities, cultures and languages (photo by Laura Pedersen)

It would be difficult to overstate the hard work and achievement of University of Toronto students this year. They literally went to the ends of the Earth. 

Matt Young, a PhD student in astronomy, returned from a two-month-long trip to Antarctica, where he helped upgrade a camera on a one-tonne telescope at a research station. The instrument observes the cosmic microwave background – electromagnetic radiation left by the Big Bang – that offers clues about the early universe. 

Closer to home, the accomplishments of U of T students were equally impressive. They overcame difficulties to succeed in their studies, held events enriching life on campus and inspired others with their dedication to learning.

Here's just a small sample of what they were up to this year:


The U of T students who kept up the tradition of Black graduation 


Students prepare to make a grand entrance at Black graduation in Hart House's Great Hall (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)

Black graduations, or commencements, have become a fixture of university calendars south of the border, including at Harvard and Stanford. In 2017, U of T students made history by organizing what was believed to be Canada's first Black graduation ceremony.

This year, Ayaan Abdulle, Matthew Campbell-Williams, Anyika Mark and a dedicated team of volunteers carried the torch. They invited Dionne Brand, a past Toronto poet laureate and winner of the Governor General’s Award who received an honorary degree from U of T, to deliver a guest lecture. And the class of '18 toasted their accomplishments in style, filing into Hart House's Great Hall to the tune of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

 

From a Tibetan refugee camp to U of T Dentistry

The road to U of T was a tough one for Khamsum Wangdu. He and his brother grew up in Nepal in a Tibetan refugee camp. They were training to be dentists, but before they could take their licensing exams, the 2015 earthquake struck, killing 9,000 people and injuring 22,000.

Amid assisting with medical and relief efforts, they learned that Canadian authorities had fast-tracked their family’s sponsorship application. They were both accepted to dentistry schools in Canada – Khamsum at U of T and his brother Kunsang at Dalhousie University. Khamsum got into an accelerated program for internationally trained dentists and is due to graduate in 2020.

“Being accepted into the University of Toronto is not simply a dream come true, it is the chance of a lifetime,” he said. 

 

The student who made his voice heard


Behzad Farkhari performed on the big Bollywood stage over the summer (photo via Facebook)

Behzad Farkhari, in neuroscience and psychology at U of T Scarborough, overcame his boyhood shyness to perform Bollywood songs. This summer, he got to perform on the biggest stage yet of his career on Dil Hai Hindustani, the Indian equivalent of American Idol. He placed ninth among the 21,000 musicians who auditioned for the reality show.

 

The undergraduate who made the most of university and inspired others to do the same

Allie Sinclair proved good grades don't have to come at the cost of everything else. She was involved in research from her very first week at U of T, landing a position in a psychology lab. As an undergraduate, she took the stage as part of the Victoria College Drama Society, went for hikes, mentored other students and even co-wrote a paper that was accepted for publication in a scholarly journal.

She graduated last year at the top of her class with a GPA of 4.0. But before leaving U of T for graduate school in the U.S., she and fellow top students from previous years shared some advice.

 

The student who was the picture of perseverance


Elspeth Arbow during a physiotherapy session at Toronto General Hospital after her double-lung transplant (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)

There was no stopping Elspeth Arbow, even when she became so short of breath that she struggled to get to class. The cinema studies student at Innis College kept up with her studies and won a student leadership award despite cystic fibrosis, which sapped her energy and required her to undergo a double-lung transplant for the second time in 10 years. She recovered from the operation and began her final semester this fall. 

 

The scholarship winner who was the first in her Kenyan village to study abroad

Emmanuela Alimlim grew up in a rural Kenyan village of about 100 people, in family of 12 kids. She was the first person from her village to study abroad when she came to U of T to take economics on a Mastercard Foundation Scholarship.

In Toronto, she overcame the stresses of living thousands of kilometres away from home, in a place with a very different climate and customs, to contribute meaningfully to life on campus. She founded the Eastern African Students' Association and a non-profit that supports the education of girls and women back in Kenya.

 

U of T's newest Rhodes Scholar


Edil Ga'al made friends and found supportive staff at U of T's Victoria College (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

At U of T, students are encouraged to engage with the world. Edil Ga'al lived up to those expectations and then some.

African studies and political science were the subjects that spoke to her. The Victoria College student explored them in the classroom and beyond, completing an internship at a human-rights NGO in Uganda and making two trips to Rwanda.

In December, she was one of only 11 Canadian students to receive a Rhodes Scholarship to continue their education at Oxford. She hopes to contribute to discussions on peace, stability and justice as an academic or fieldworker. “I know it’s a lofty goal, but you kind of have to dream big,” she said. 

 

The engineering student who had a hand in an Oscar-winning film

There are no small parts in a film. The same could be said for the work behind the scenes. Charlie Katrycz, in mechanical engineering, contributed to Guillermo del Toro's and The Shape of Water's Oscar glory in 2018 by helping to build the tank for the movie's amphibian man.

 

Outstanding Indigenous students who organized a powwow and gave back to their communities


Dancers at the 2018 powwow at the Goldring Centre organized by the Indigenous Studies Students' Union (photo by Laura Pedersen)

Indigenous students organized the first powwow on campus in 20 years in 2017. This year, the expected attendance was so great that the event was moved to the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport. 

Hundreds of people turned out, some hailing from northern Ontario, to celebrate Indigenous students, language and culture. Students, staff and faculty danced across the gym floor together.

Earlier this year, two Indigenous students with an impressive track record inside the classroom and beyond were recognized with the President's Award for Outstanding Indigenous Student of the Year. Julie Blair returned to school after a 20-year hiatus to earn a 3.9 GPA and lead Indigenous committees and clubs. Meanwhile, PhD student Rebecca Beaulne-Stuebing studied the untold histories of Anishinaabe-led schools in relation to Indigenous activist movements.

 

The quadruple threat 

Abigail Whitney operates with the same 24 hours a day as the rest of us, but she’s found the time to be a student, actor, model and director. Whitney, a University College student, was the face of a national ad campaign for Sephora, she appeared in CoverGirl and Vogue Italia and made her directorial debut with the UC Follies' show, Les Frères (The Brothers) by Sandra A. Daley-Sharif.

 

The scientist who went to the bottom of the Earth


Matt Young took a selfie at the South Pole while on a research trip during his PhD studies at U of T (photo courtesy of Matt Young)

A research station at the South Pole bears the names of two legendary early 20th-century explorers who ventured into the icy unknown. Matt Young's adventure to the South Pole began last winter. He took five flights over two weeks to reach a research station, where he helped upgrade a camera that surveys the sky at microwave frequencies to reveal the cosmic microwave background. The instrument produces a snapshot of the universe as it was less than 400,000 years after the Big Bang.

Young evidently didn't have his fill of fun – he returned to Antarctica this fall.

 

The serial-killer researcher who connected the dots and made headlines

Sasha Reid has an unusual academic interest: serial killers and their motivations. She has spreadsheets filled with the names of series killers and their modus operandi. After seeing a pattern in missing persons in Toronto, she came to suspect there was a serial killer at large in Toronto and shared her theory with the police. Her suspicions appeared to be confirmed when police later arrested a man in connection with the deaths of eight men with ties to the gay village. Reid made national and international news.

 

The Nigerian students who give African expats a taste of home


(photo courtesy of Paul Borkwood/CBC Licensing)

This was a big year for Stephen Ayeni and Naafiu Mohammed, U of T Mississauga students from Nigeria who met in math class in 2015. They missed the cuisine from home and figured that other African students did too. That was the impetus for their e-commerce site, Afrocart, which offers cereals, snacks, flour, spices and other items, including a batter dispenser to make Nigerian puff-puffs and rock buns.