New Excellence is Black award fund aims to create community and opportunity for Black graduate students

Gayatri Kumar, April 6, 2021

Excellence is Black award launch event slide

A new student-led award fund is working to increase access to financial support and mentorship for Black graduate students at the University of Toronto.

Excellence is Black is a joint undertaking between students from the Rotman School of Management, the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, and the Faculty of Law. In addition to inspiring and supporting future generations of Black talent at U of T, the initiative also aims to connect Black graduate students across campus and celebrate their many achievements.

“I saw that we (Black graduate students) were doing so much, but in silos,” said Frank Otabor, a second-year MBA student at the Rotman School of Management, and one of the initiative’s founding members. “Often, you hear two main things when you survey Black students. We don’t have access to role models. And we don’t have access to finances.”

The Nigerian-born Otabor, who also serves as VP Events of the Rotman African and Caribbean Business Club, wanted to change that narrative. He began by reaching out to the Black students’ associations in the faculties of medicine and law, and received an enthusiastic response.

Noroh Dakim, a second-year medical student and member of the organizing committee also felt that community, in addition to financial support, was crucial for Black graduate students at U of T. “There are very unique experiences that come with being a Black individual in academia, or indeed on any career path,” said Dakim, who is also a member of the Black Medical Students’ Association. “Finding a community where you feel like your experiences are heard, validated, recognized, and appreciated is so important.”

The inaugural award gala held on March 27 saw Black graduate students, faculty, alumni, and community members join the virtual event to celebrate Black excellence at U of T.

In her opening remarks, U of T Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr acknowledged the importance of breaking down systemic barriers to create a more equitable and inclusive campus. “The University of Toronto can only be great if brilliant people from every community feel like the University is a place that will welcome them. And the University of Toronto can only be great if these brilliant people have the supports to succeed once they are here.” 

Professor Regehr noted some of the steps that the university has taken over the past four years to redress the underrepresentation of marginalized communities, including the dedication of 100 faculty positions for Black and Indigenous scholars. (Seventy of those positions have now been filled.) Over the past three years, the number of access and outreach programs to bring new students to the university has also increased from 30 to 105, with 30 new programs being introduced over the pandemic year.

The Provost also expressed her gratitude for the efforts of the graduate students who put together the new award. “In addition to what this is doing for current students, you are building a foundation of inclusive excellence for the future,” she said. “Because of students like you, we are on the right path, and the future looks bright.”

Excellence is Black organizers
Clockwise from top left: Excellence is Black organizers Frank Otabor (MBA ’21), Noroh Dakim (MD ‘23), Rebecca Barclay Nguinambaye (JD 2021), and Novalee Davy (JD/MBA 2022)

The afternoon then proceeded with a highlight reel of Black excellence at U of T, which was followed by a keynote speech from Colin Lynch, founder of the Black Opportunity Fund, an endowment directed by the Black community for the benefit of Black Canadians. Attendees also heard from Dahabo Ahmed Omer, the Executive Director of the BlackNorth Initiative, a coalition of business leaders across Canada working to create better representation for Black Canadians in boardrooms across the nation.

In addition to hearing from community leaders, participants also took advantage of virtual networking sessions as well as workshops that addressed the specific challenges facing Black graduate students and Black professionals entering the workforce.

Among the workshop facilitators was Professor Rhonda McEwen, Director of the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information & Technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. McEwen, who will start her term as UTM’s Vice-Principal, Academic and Dean this July, led a session on finding confidence as a Black professional where she shared her experiences with navigating corporate life and finding confidence in her talents. “Don’t let yourself be burdened by those ideas of tokenism,” McEwen said, addressing the dozen or so students gathered in the breakout session. “The more you are successful in your own space, the more you will be recognized as excellent.”

The burden of representation was also top of mind for Sandra Osazuwa, President of the Black Graduate Students’ Association, who led one of the workshops on being Black in academia. “Often, as we move up the ranks, we become the only ones available,” said Sandra, who is pursuing a PhD in clinical and counselling psychology at OISE, and is the only Black student in her program. “I get asked to a lot of speaking opportunities, which puts a lot of stress on me —versus my peers—and interferes with what I should be doing as a student.” Sandra hopes these discussions will help administrators see the need for adequate compensation for EDI work.

While the event was focused on graduate students, a number of seats were reserved for undergraduate and high school students considering their futures in the academy. Stephane Martin Demers, a fourth-year undergraduate student and President of the Faculty of Music Anti-Racism Alliance, attended the event in part due to the surge in racial injustice against Black, Indigenous, and Asian communities in the past year.  “So often we see these negative images of marginalized groups that are perpetuated by the media. And so often the way Black people see themselves is dependent on how the white community sees them or how non-Black people see them. So our vision is not filtered through our own understandings.”

Martin Demers, who is also part of the University of Toronto Scarborough’s  Modern-Day Griot Project, believes that events like Excellence is Black can help create a new narrative that lifts up Black communities. “What a conference like this does is show Black youth that they can do it, that there is a place for them at U of T.”

Excellence is Black is currently seeking donations to meet its initial award fund goal of $100,000, and hopes it can open up nominations for its first round of awards by the end of the academic year. Awards will be given to students (both domestic and international) with demonstrated financial need and a proven commitment to community leadership. The University of Toronto (Vice Provost, Students’ Office), the Rotman School of Management, the U of T Faculty of Law and the School of Graduate Studies are among the award’s initial sponsors.

“My vision is that it becomes a recurring event, and that we create that framework to make it sustainable,” said Otabor, who will be graduating with his MBA in less than a month. “We want to keep chipping away at those barriers until they are no longer there.”

Visit Excellence is Black’s giving page to learn more and contribute.


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