Recognizing Undergraduate Student Leaders

Foram Vyas

Foram Vyas, Immunology (2018-2019)

My leadership philosophy is fairly simple. For me, leadership has never been about telling people to do things. Rather, it is more about a dialogue between myself and my teammates. I have always believed that there can be many leaders in a single team as long as they are able to set standards for themselves, keep an open mind and an open dialogue between others and themselves. I believe that every opinion and idea is important and should be taken into consideration, never written off.

As a part of IMMSA, I have been given the opportunity to meet and interact with amazing individuals. It taught me that leadership is also about taking a step back and delegating tasks when someone is more interested and enthusiastic about a topic. An integral part of IMMSA are the undergraduate students. Being one myself, I understand the fear it takes for them to converse with the rest of the undergraduates, with us as a student group, and with the faculty. IMMSA as a team has continued to strengthen the relationship with the undergraduate students to foster a better supportive environment and build a community.

Outside of IMMSA, I also believe that my research experience has helped mold me into an individual who has learned to read the situation, think about what needs to be done and take action. I have learned to become more confident in myself, and that, in itself, has allowed me to put more faith into the people around me.

I would not be the person I am without the amazing opportunities I have been given to become a better individual and a confident leader.

David Won

David Won, Immunology Specialist (2018-2019)

My name is David Won and I am a 4th year Immunology Specialist student at the University of Toronto, St. George’s Campus. Being in my 4thyear of my undergraduate studies, I have been fortunate to take up more leadership roles within clubs that I have been associated with throughout my undergraduate years. One example is that I am one of the co-presidents of the Immunology Students’ Association (IMMSA), which is a undergraduate, student-run organization representing all students enrolled in the Immunology Program at the University of Toronto, St. George Campus. By taking up these sorts of roles, I have displayed leadership by setting goals for my affiliated clubs, planning and helping run social and academic events, being willing to try new things and organizing logistical and technical aspects required to run a club efficiently. My personal leadership philosophy involves 3 tenets – being persistent at achieving set goals, taking on worthwhile challenges and serving members of the community for the greater good.

Tijana Despot

Tijana Despot, Immunology Specialist (2018-2019)

A strong personal belief I embody is that listening and learning lays the foundation for the development of empathetic and meaningful leadership qualities in an individual. As I enter my 4th year of undergraduate study in the Immunology Specialist Program at the University of Toronto, I have applied this principle with regards to my academics, research, and involvement in Student Life.

As a student in the Immunology Department, I have had the privilege of conducting research on numerous occasions during the course of my studies. As a recipient of the Trinity College Queen Elizabeth II Immunology Scholarship, I travelled to the Hudson Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia where I investigated Type I interferon anti-viral responses. Currently, I am conducting research through the Immunology Undergraduate Summer Research Program in Dr. Thierry Mallevaey’s lab where I am characterizing factors affecting CD1d expression in the context of iNKT cell responses. I hope to apply the leadership qualities I obtained in the laboratory to future projects and to future pursuits in medicine and graduate studies.

During my time at the University of Toronto I have had the opportunity to mentor, support, and inspire throughout numerous engagements by encouraging student involvement in extracurricular activities and welcoming prospective students to the St. George Campus. For the past 2 years, I have been serving as the Executive Director of the University of Toronto Emergency First Responders (UTEFR). This role entails overseeing the executive team, organizing and mentoring first aid response teams for various University of Toronto events, and promoting safety and first aid awareness for the student body. I have also welcomed prospective students and supported current students in the capacity of Trinity College Tour Guide, Trinity College Peer Advisor, and Trinity College Orientation Week Leader.

Overall, the University of Toronto community has provided me with a multitude of opportunities to foster and build upon my leadership skills. I hope to extend these qualities during my last year of undergraduate studies and to all future endeavors.

Amirahmad Azhieh 

Amirahmad Azhieh, Molecular Genetics (2019-2020)

It would not be far from truth to say one of the main reasons I became involved in leadership opportunities was sheer luck! This was however, a result of my interest in people and socializing with them in different settings. I recall that I rarely thought of myself being in a student club or association until the day that I decided to attend the first general meeting of the Molecular Genetics and Microbiology Students Union (MGYSU) simply in order to get to know new people. As it later turned out, they were also holding their by-elections and so they were looking for 2nd-year students to run for the position of 2nd-year rep. I decided to run on the spot and, surprisingly enough, got elected.

What helped me over the next two years however, was exactly those initial sentiments I had towards social activities; namely the drive to reach out to new people and try to work together in order to accomplish any given goal. And thus began my role from a newcomer to an effective member of the union who, two years later, was able to run successfully for Co-President of the Union. During my tenure as the third-year representative I helped establish a new series of academic talks titled “the Pioneers” where a distinguished member of the department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology whose work has contributed seminally to the field, is invited by our union to give a semi-formal talk to undergraduate students. The series of talks has been ongoing to this year in addition to the academic seminars that I have been organizing with the help of other members of the executive team. This year and in my role as the

Co-President, I have also been presiding over biweekly meetings of the executive team and helped everyone work in coordination with the other members of the executive team in order to organize various different events ranging from socials to mentorship programs.

addition to being a leader at the MGYSU, I have been involved in university life through acting as a peer mentor in the Trinity One program, where I served incoming first-year students and helped them adapt to the new environment they were experiencing by offering them academic support and providing them with information about selecting their programs and getting research opportunities; pieces of information that a first-year student would usually have a hard time discovering at an early stage.

Furthermore, during my third-year studies, as a member of the executive team of the Iranian Association at the University of Toronto, I contributed to organizing a variety of social, academic, and intellectual events for the Iranian and Iranian-Canadian students at the University of Toronto.

The sum total of all these experiences have been extremely fruitful for me, and I hope, for the students at UofT. I believe the key to being a successful leader is to recognize the potential for a collective work to excel as long as there is harmony between different members of the group.  Additionally, a good leader understands that she has to resist the always-too-easy urge to underestimate what she can do as a student leader. My experiences have proved to me that by reaching out to people, be it well-known professors or various administrators of the university community, there is a high chance of you being able to ask for their help in organizing events as long as a minimal level of professionalism in the process of communication is maintained, in particular as the majority of people in the university community are also eager to perform their best to keep the level of intellectual and social experiences of students at its highest.

These are what helped me contribute to my university community in various ways. As merely a single person in all these roles, I am grateful to have worked with very different people who all share a single, but very important, characteristic; the inclination to work as a team despite all the odds. That is why I am going to constantly keep this optimistic outlook in how I deal with different problems in my personal and social life as I have learned that a collective approach is the most effective way to combat many, if not all, the problems one faces during the course of their lifetime.

Negar Dehghan Noudeh

Negar Dehghan Noudeh, 4Nutritional Sciences and Health & Disease (2019-2020)

I started with being a student speaker in the math orientation for MAT135/136 courses held in the summer of my first year. During that summer, as well as my second year, I learned about various opportunities that existed to meet new people and to work with them in improving community engagement for the better of UofT. I joined the Iranian Association at the University of Toronto (UTiran) in the summer of my second year and have been a part of the team for two consecutive years. UTiran allowed me to gather and engage the many Iranian students of UofT in a variety of academic and social events. I also became a facilitator speaker in the UC frosh week that summer, which allowed me to help the incoming students learn all about Life Science courses as well as all the opportunities on campus. In the summer of my third year, I became a frosh leader in UC orientation week. This helped me get closer to first-year students and provide them with help and opportunities that are rather hard to look for in such a large student community. Last year I also became a year representative in the nutritional sciences student association (NSSA). This was a particularly new experience for me as I was hoping to focus my leadership skills on the specific department that I major in. I had this fantastic opportunity of representing 4th-year nutritional science students and help them in finding out about the great events and opportunities held for them as a means of community engagement.

As you can see, my philosophy of taking leadership positions was mostly about engaging students. This university has thousands of students, many of whom don’t know each other, and all the fantastic opportunities awaiting them. Another part of my leadership revolved around teamwork. As they say, teamwork is what makes the dream work! I was able to meet such helpful and kind people, and together, we were able to make tremendous changes. Lastly, I believe that thriving leaders are those who can transpose their enthusiasm into action and inspire others to do the same. I am incredibly thankful for those who inspired me to realize the value of seeking what I enjoy.

Michael Lee

Michael Lee, Laboratory Medicne and Pathobiology (2019-2020)

Leadership is not a virtue that we are born with. Rather, it is an infectious quality that spreads from people to people through our interactions and experiences. It can then be refined through the process of self-discovery and growth. Therefore, a great leader is someone who is able to transmit such trait to others and is constantly motivated to improve and grow.

As the Co-President of the Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology Student Union (LMPSU), I initially thought that I had to do as many tasks as I can to lead the organization. But I realized that I wasn’t giving enough opportunities for other executives to learn and grow. They felt less involved, confident, and capable of leading. I now know that, as a Co-President, I have to empower others so that they can become leaders themselves. Thus, I shifted how I lead. In January 2019, the LMPSU organized a forensics conference, “Making the Dead Talk,” which featured five speakers and a career panel for the first time. I aimed to build teams of people who felt strong responsibilities for their tasks. For example, I delegated one executive the task of effective marketing for the conference. With a clear task in mind, he devised a unique way of advertising by reaching out to the Graduate Law Students’ Association, UTM students, and other groups of students we have not attracted before. Over 250 students attended the event, a significant improvement from the previous conference which only had 60 people in attendance. With clear communication and shared responsibilities, we produced not only an outstanding and improved conference, but I instilled confidence and enthusiasm in the organizers.

Over the past few years, I have also realized the importance of advocacy. As the Co- Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Undergraduate Life Sciences (JULS), I have to orchestrate the entire publication process of a peer-reviewed undergraduate journal. Undergraduate contributions to research are often neglected and unpublished. By providing avenues for students to share their work, I not only advocate for their works to be recognized, but also inspire other students to learn from each other and engage in research. Moreover, my passion for music and music therapy propelled me to become the Choir Director of Healing Sounds of Music (HSM). As the Choir Director, I lead weekly rehearsals to prepare for our performances at senior homes, nursing homes, and various concerts throughout the year. I have also ensured that anyone can join the club, regardless of their skill level and background in music. This open door policy has allowed students to get together, share their passion for music, and enjoy our social events, such as Open Mic Night where we can just sing our hearts out in a stress-free space. In this way, I advocate for the well-being of not only seniors and patients, but also the students themselves.

Outside of university, I have been involved in Youth Assisting Youth’s peer mentorship program. Through this program, I have been acting as a positive role model for a fifth-grader, Mohammad. Having migrated from Syria two years ago as a refugee, Mohammad is going through social, cultural, and linguistic challenges, similar to what I faced when I first came to Canada 14 years ago. My goal is to empower him by doing simple, yet meaningful Canadian activities, such as experiencing the exhilaration of skating at Nathan Phillips Square, viewing all of Toronto from the top of the CN tower, and crowding on the sidewalk to watch the parade floats when Santa has come to town. These activities have made Toronto feel more like home to him. During this time, I came to understand what it means to be an empathetic leader.

Cumulatively, my experiences have shaped me into the person I am today – an empowering leader, an advocate for student research and music therapy, and an empathetic person who strives to help young immigrants who struggle to settle in Canada.

Laura Tang

Laura Tang, Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology (2019-2020)

My leadership philosophy is grounded by the conviction that I can empower and grow with others. This belief translates to activities starting meaningful dialogue, building mentorship networks, and fostering leadership in the teams I lead.

As a student researcher driven by curiosity, I have moved from clinical to translational to basic research. I picked up a growth mindset and communication skills en route. These skills combined gave me stories to share with audiences of all backgrounds at poster presentations and program promotions. I found that my personal narrative was more accessible to students unfamiliar with biology research and sparked discussion. In the past four years, I engaged with many people who have different life-stories and values than myself and learned that making meaningful connections began at finding an appropriate language. For example, I engaged biology students in dialogue promoting the satellite project of University of Toronto Aerospace Team by relating microgravity to evolution of virulence. As a leader, I continue to create new avenues of collaboration with student groups and the department in order to make new learning and social opportunities for students.

I value mentorship because my accomplishments have always been underpinned by people who believed in me and helped me build my confidence over time. In first year, my student mentor listened to my challenges with empathy and encouraged me to act beyond my vulnerability to secure my first research opportunity. I learned from her that everyone is carrying something unseen, and that is deserving of tolerance, understanding, and support. This belief seeded my desire to empower students and motivated me to run for VP Academic of the Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology Student Union (LMPSU). When I was elected, I revived LMP mentorship program which connected 30 students and acquired CCR accreditation for the program. I saw the relationships which I catalyzed develop at the academic seminars which I organized. Later on, as a mentor, I sought to be a positive and honest role model. As my mentees and I took small steps together writing research applications or studying, I listened to them without bias to understand their perspectives and advocated for their strengths.

As current LMPSU Co-President, I chair meetings and work with my executive team to oversee academic seminars, socials, study sessions and a mentorship program. I have collaborated with the LMP department to host an undergraduate town hall to listen to and start addressing student needs and barriers. I also planned and co-chaired a conference (Go with Your Gut 2020) held at UofT which attracted over 200 attendees, 5 undergraduate poster presenters, and featured a more equitable gender representation in our speakers. My efforts as Co-President have realized some immediate changes which include increased second-year student engagement, a CCR-accredited mentorship program and an eco-friendlier digitalized past-test distribution process. However, the outcome that I value the most is the growth of my executive team as they step into leadership positions themselves. I remained flexible and offered support as I encouraged less experienced students to take ownership and lead sub-committees for new programs and changes based on their ideas. I try to democratize the decision-making process. As a result, we have hosted more relevant events and reached higher attendance rates at the events we host. My team’s collective vision of what the LMP student community could become is more vibrant than my vision alone. I am very fortunate to build that dream together with them.

Mindy Lam

Mindy Lam, Biochemistry (2019-2020)

My leadership philosophy has been shaped by the many mentors I encountered in my undergraduate studies. Their mentorship and altruistic manner helped guide my career at UofT and showed me what qualities a successful leader possesses. From their example, I have learned that leaders are inspiring mentors, dedicated team members and compassionate individuals who contribute to their community for the better.

One of my first leadership roles at UofT was as an orientation leader at New College. I was motivated by my own orientation leaders who provided guidance to me—a nervous first year student who had just moved away from home. Realizing that orientation leaders are one of the first people incoming students meet and interact with at UofT, I wanted to instill the same confidence I received in the next generation of incoming students and made an effort to foster an environment where students felt welcomed to university life. It was truly rewarding to see that some of my students felt the same and joined me as an orientation leader in my second year of involvement.

Over the last three years, I have been a part of the Biochemistry Undergraduate Student Society (BUSS). For the first two years, I served as a year representative with the goal of creating a cohesive and close-knit community for biochemistry undergraduate students. I was involved in organizing academic support events like midterm review sessions, social networking events and academic seminars to connect students to faculty members. Outside of my responsibilities as a BUSS executive, I also lead a weekly study group for the second-year biochemistry specialist course students to provide a space for the students to meet, support each other, and develop relationships.

Currently, I am serving as the Co-President of BUSS. One of my main goals this year was to lay down the foundation to help other executives, especially first-time members, to succeed in their roles. I made sure to be available and approachable so my team members knew they could always come to me for assistance. As the year progressed, I interjected less and team members were able to work autonomously on their own subprojects. I also encouraged discussion during meetings, so decisions were always the result of group deliberations as l valued the input from every member. One of my other goals was to extend BUSS’ outreach to include more of the undergraduate student community so we hosted more academic support seminars for biochemistry major students and collaborations with other student unions this year.

When I reflect on the people who have influenced my leadership philosophy, I cannot fail to mention my research supervisors and graduate student mentors. Their patience in mentoring me through my mistakes, as well as their dedication and passion for their work are aspects I try to incorporate into my own leadership philosophy. Under their guidance, I was able to develop independence in the lab and gain a sense of confidence in myself which has permeated through all aspects of my life. These are lessons I will take with me after my undergraduate studies and I hope to pass them on to future mentees.

Outside of student governance, I am involved with mentoring younger students in the biochemistry department because I know first-hand how valuable the guidance of an upper-year student can be. Hearing encouragement and advice from someone who had been in my shoes was extremely helpful when I faced difficult situations. Hoping to inspire others to share my love for biochemistry, I also volunteered with events like the Let’s Talk Science Challenge that encourages middle school students to engage in STEM at a level beyond their regular school curriculum. From my experience working as a piano teacher for the last 5 years, I have also learned that every individual has a unique potential to be unlocked. I developed lesson plans for every single child that highlights their strengths while improving areas they struggle in to achieve their goals. It is the most fulfilling experience when a parent tells me their child is more confident at school because they can see improvement in themselves through piano.

My experience as a BUSS executive and a mentor for younger students has contributed to my personal development as a student leader. I have worked to create an environment where students have a supportive community and are motivated to take on new challenges. My leadership philosophy will continue to evolve as I accumulate more experience and I hope to inspire others like my mentors have done for me.

Kanwar Boparai

Kanwar Boparai, Pharmacology Specialist (2019-2020)

As a leader, I have dedicated myself to uphold my philosophy which is rooted in advocacy, passion, and support. These principles have pushed me to strive for success as a leader, allowing me to encourage growth for myself and my peers along the way.

I have always believed that empathy and advocacy are crucial to leadership. A leader should be understanding of their peers and should hope to support their needs. Upon joining the Pharmacology & Toxicology Students’ Association, I knew immediately that I wanted to advocate for the mental well-being of my peers. As an executive and upper year mentor, I became directly involved in fostering an environment of support for my peers. This year, as Co-President, we were able to form course-specific study groups embedded into our lounge days. This created a space where students could bounce off their peers for academic support, all while being in a stress-free environment with provided refreshments, and additional mental health resources.

Moreover, I have seen that the most productive results come from passionate leaders. Throughout my undergraduate journey, I have had the privilege of joining diverse research labs, based within the university or at local hospitals. Through various projects, displayed leadership and hard work, I have strengthened my passion for education and clinical research. These endeavours have enriched my drive, resilience, and ability to communicate as a leader.

Lastly, I believe it is crucial for a leader to support and collaborate with their team. As a leader, I have displayed this support throughout various volunteer endeavours, whether they be at local hospitals, student unions, or through my volunteer trips to Ghana, Panama and Dominican Republic. As an Outreach executive at UofT’s Global Medical Training chapter, while facilitating fundraisers or events, I have focused on communicating with my team and providing guidance wherever possible. My importance in providing support has been vested in me from a young age, through hurdles in my personal life. While certain circumstances initially discouraged me, I am glad that they have allowed me to remain resilient and become a supportive leader- even throughout the most difficult endeavours.

As a leader, you can empower your team to believe in themselves, beyond any difficulties or technicalities. For the past 4 years, as an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, my most valued accomplishment has been dedicating myself to uphold my leadership philosophy- and I hope to continually do so with all my future endeavours.

Al-amin Ahamed

Al-Amin Ahamed, Nutritional Sciences (2019-2020)

The virtues of my leadership style have transformed dramatically throughout my undergraduate career. Whether it be as an Orientation Coordinator or Student Mentor, my experiences have transcribed a more holistic understanding of leadership and its impact on the community. Graduating high school under the Specialized Future Leaders Program, I had entered university with the confidence to put myself out there by already demonstrating essential leadership skills. However, realizing that most did not come from this background I knew it was difficult for others to get involved and give back proactively to the university. It is because of this that my leadership philosophy has garnered around the ability to encourage others to act and reach their true potential. Inevitably, my leadership virtues have evolved to reflect on the values of
acceptance, opportunity and growth not only as a leader but as an individual.

As a commuter student for the first three years of my undergraduate degree, I found it meticulous and demanding to balance my academics and extracurriculars, but by immersing myself in a variety of leadership positions I developed the essential skills to manage my time and create meaningful outcomes. Starting my involvement as an Orientation Executive for Innis College, I proved to others that leadership opportunities can not only be rewarding in the short term, but also in the long run. Not having any prior Innis College experience, I demonstrated the impact of hard work and that commuter representation is important when exemplifying the diversity and values of acceptance. I realized I had the capacity to make a difference in the commuter portfolio by modeling the behaviours of what could be if others took action. This in turn influenced me to extend my leadership involvement throughout campus and the community to inspire others to do the same.

Now in my final year at university, I find myself more involved than ever and in the unique position as one of the first commuter student Residence Dons at Innis College. Within this context I have amalgamated my diverse experiences as a commuting leader to provide essential support to residence students. This dual-perspective in student life has allowed me to accomodate my leadership style for the benefit of all students through one-on-one mentorship. Actively accepting and inspiring all students to get involved subsequently led to more student engagement within the residence. Staying true and authentic to my outspoken brand as a marginalized-queer commuting student similarly modeled much needed representation in leadership. Breaking barriers and dissecting gradients in opportunity I allowed others to seek opportunity of their own to consequently grow in their own values and experiences. This rewarding opportunity allowed me to really put my skills to the test and use my diverse experiences to help build and facilitate a cooperative, productive, supportive and energized residence environment. Planning to also continue my involvement even after I graduate, I have secured the position of Orientation Coordinator 2020 for Innis College.

Another leadership experience that has contributed valuable outcomes is my experience as the Co-President of the Nutritional Sciences Student Association (NSSA). This role allowed me to branch out from my comfort zone and endeavor in rebranding projects to refresh the identity of the student association. Spearheading the actions taken to produce a new logo, network with new organizations and collaborating with other student unions inevitably helped rebrand and advocate our goals of success and mentorship on behalf of the Department of Nutritional Sciences. Within this position I also helped bridge gaps in student responsibility to create a more cohesive and proactive executive team that in turn worked collaboratively to get work done.

This genuine interest and motivation to make a difference in Nutritional Sciences stemmed from my ongoing research interests in maternal choline diet models. As an undergraduate research student, my project focussed on the effects of a differing maternal choline diets on the long-term lipid metabolism in offspring. By presenting my research to the Department of Nutritional Sciences I developed growth not only as a leader but as an individual by reflecting on constructive criticism. I took this as an opportunity to grow and learn in a demanding field, empowering myself and others who witnessed my achievements.

At first it may seem that my leadership achievements are incoherent; however, all these experiences reinforce the importance of opportunity and mentorship, which can also be reinforced in my involvement as a mentee with the Innis Alumni Mentorship Project and as a mentor with the Global Society for Genetics and Genome Biology (GSGGB) Mentorship Program. Within these roles I have taken the opportunity to learn from a mentor to help facilitate my career goals and motivations, while similarly aiding first year students with their overwhelming transition into university life.

Guiding students to reach their potential is essential when trying to build a community within the university and community context. Inspiring others to actively use their talents through a sense of empowerment and encouragement to act and make a difference has been at the forefront of my leadership philosophy. It has served as the foundation for my ideals and values in valuable leadership contributions and will serve as my platform to continue my positive impact in the long-term.