When UofT’s fundraising team contacted alumna Sandra Sualim for a donation to their 2022 annual campaign, she told them the initiatives they were promoting were important but not for her. Instead, she asked, “Do you have any bursaries for Black or Indigenous youth? Not a scholarship but a bursary, not grade-based but more financial need and merit-based?”
As a student, Sualim had to work full-time, at the front desk of what was then the SkyDome Hotel, while also studying full-time for her honours degree in English and Psychology with a minor in Economics. It was a stressful situation that she believes negatively affected her grades.
“I was a solid A or B student, but if I had had the opportunity to work less, who knows?,” says Sualim, who is now the President and CEO of the Humber River Hospital Foundation. “Part of my struggle has made me who I am, but it would also have been nice to also not struggle so much to get where I am.”
While Sualim received an entry scholarship to UofT and understands the importance of awards that promote academic rigour, she believes there need to be more bursaries to support working students, especially those from minority backgrounds, who may be the first generation in their family to attend university. When she relayed that message to the caller from UofT advancement, he promised to look into existing bursaries and get back to her, which is how she came to discover the Faculty of Information’s Grant for Black or Indigenous Students.
That grant, created in 2020 in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, recognizes the importance the Faculty and University place on supporting Black and Indigenous student education. It prompted Sualim to make her first ever donation to her alma mater. “Even though there’s no connection between me and the Faculty of Information, I said, ‘that will have my support.’”
The grant is already working in the manner Sualim foresaw. Doctoral student and grant recipient Ava Lew pointed out that in addition to studying or conducting research, many mature students, like herself, often have to care for family members or take on contract work, which limits the amount of time they can devote to extracurricular activities. In cases, when there is only one award or scholarship available, she said, “it will likely go to the perfect A+ student or to someone who can devote most of their free time to extracurricular activities” of the type so often favoured by award committees.
“What makes this grant distinct is that it widens the pool of students who can benefit by being able to assist more students,” said Lew. “It is good to have a diverse range of awards that that appeal to the needs of a diverse range of students. And every little bit helps.”
Along with attracting new donors, the Grant for Black or Indigenous Students also appeals to some of the Faulty of Information’s longtime supporters including Lisa Douglas, an alumna as well as an employer partner involved in hiring co-op and practicum students. “The grant caught my attention because of our times and the fact that I think it supports the breakdown of systemic barriers to post-secondary education and ensures that everyone has a chance to succeed,” said Douglas, a lawyer at the Baker McKenzie law firm, who studied law after working as a librarian.
Douglas and Sualim are two of 59 donors who have so far contributed a total of almost $20,500 to the grant. Along with alumni, donors also include current students and current and retired faculty members and staff. The Faculty of Information matches all grants up to $25,000. As of September 2022, 49 grants had been made to 28 students. The size of the grant varies and is based on students’ unmet financial needs.
Martina Douglas, the Faculty of Information’s Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, sees this grant as one of many necessary steps needed to remove barriers and make educational institutions more equitable. “The grant alleviates some financial stress, but most importantly it shows that the Faculty of Information cares about the success of its BIPOC students, not only in words, but also through action,” Douglas said. “It provides access to supports and opportunities that aren’t typically easily accessed.”
Along with Lew, another grant recipient is Taj-Rae Oliver, a second year Master’s student in the Human-Centred Data Science concentration, who completed her undergraduate education in neuroscience and physiology at UofT. Oliver, who says it’s her second nature to scout out applicable financial awards, received the grant in both her first and second years.
“The security of the grant is helpful because, having been in school so long, my student loans are always in the back of my mind,” she said. “This allows me to reduce the amount I’m paying for tuition. It lessens some of the stress while I complete the program as I can focus more on my studies. Also, I will have a smaller student loan balance after I finish the program, which makes life a little easier.”
Despite receiving this grant as well as the Florence Partridge Scholarship and the professional Master’s financial aid grant, Oliver continues to work 15 hours a week as a junior policy analyst at Health Canada, where she did her summer co-op term and was offered the chance to stay on.
While the demands of this position and a full-time professional Master’s program keep her busy, Oliver, who will graduate next spring, feels as if she’s on track for a career where she will be helping to improve health outcomes or public health. “Government is somewhere I would like to end up or at least get some experience,” she says.
The new grant has made it that much easier for her to get there.