Nicole Osayande was surrounded by Black and South Asian students while attending C.W. Jeffreys, a high school in a northwest Toronto neighbourhood with a diverse population. Activism and advocacy were routine, part of an everyday effort to change negative attitudes about the teens she mingled with every day.
“I was part of a club called Smile warriors. And essentially what we do is we would run events to mend the relationship between students and teachers,” said Ms. Osayande, whose work in high school earned her a scholarship to Queen’s.
When she got to Queen’s – as one of the first graduates of C.W. Jeffreys to attend the university – she went to a ceremony to thank the scholarship donors. But there was no one like her in the room.
“I was looking around and I didn’t see any Black people. I saw a very few people of color and that’s what kind of like pumped me right on the spot to start Queens Student Diversity project.”
The project grew to a team of 30 students, with Ms. Osayande serving as president for three years. Her work included efforts to encourage more students of diverse backgrounds to apply to the university. In the classroom, Ms. Osayande studied biomedical computing and worked with a professor to build software modules for a hip replacement surgery tool.
Last week, she became one of 20 inaugural recipients of a McCall MacBain scholarship, a prize awarded to students demonstrating leadership capabilities who plan to pursue post-secondary studies at McGill University.
“There’s a lot of struggle for specifically Black and South Asian students coming into predominantly white institutions,” she said. “I’m really going to be focusing on allocating resources to support students of colour in predominantly white institutions.”
The scholarship program, launched in 2019 with a $200-million fund provided by philanthropists John and Marcy McCall MacBain, is aimed at allowing students from across Canada and the globe to pursue higher learning at McGill University when otherwise that chance would be out of reach.
The award covers tuition, fees and a living stipend. Recipients are chosen for good citizenship and their leadership qualities above academic achievement.
“We are looking for diversity in how people recognize the need in their own community and are committed to a life of integrity and they care so much about other people that they don’t even know that they have these incredible qualities that just don’t show up everywhere,” Ms. McCall MacBain said in an interview.
“It’s the one who may sometimes not even know it’s them who’s leading the group because they may do it in a quiet way.”
Another recipient, Zeytouna Suleiman of Montreal, wants to work in human rights. The 22-year-old had volunteered with the Muslim Students Association at McGill for several years and has worked at a local women’s shelter and a resource centre for victims of domestic violence.
“The theme within my academic and professional journey has been my commitment to service and my commitment to be of service to those that are from really vulnerable sectors of society,” she said.
Ms. Suleiman considers social service as her “mission statement” and plans to study law at McGill.
Recipient Tyler Paetkau said that while growing up in Grand Prairie, Alta., he saw plenty of conflict between rural communities such as his and those in academia. His undergraduate degree is in philosophy and he plans to work on a masters in philosophy and bioethics at McGill.
“I’ve been involved in both worlds. There’s a lot of harm happening because the two worlds aren’t communicating well with each other,” he said. “And that’s what I really want to do with my life, and kind of the goal of my education is to help kind of bridge that divide between those two groups.”
Natasha Sawh, the Dean of the McCall MacBain Scholarships at McGill, noted the scholarship’s focus on leadership fills an acute need.
“We’ve seen what the absence of leadership looks like in the present day,” she said. “These [scholars] are leaders who will go on to really engage other people in the work that they do and build coalitions. All of those kinds of things are really important to building bridges and making meaningful change happen in positive ways.”
The scholarship attracted 735 applicants from Canada. International students will be eligible to apply next year, when there will be 30 recipients for 2023.