More Harm Than Help: A Perspective of Black History Month

I like to think that a good majority of people at U of T — and in Toronto itself — are perceptive and accepting towards distinct racial identities. However, as the end of February approaches, I realize I still understand little of Black History Month other than the basics —  the intent is to raise awareness of African-American heritage, and people are polarized about its existence — and was curious to learn more about whether or not students felt it had a positive impact on their lives.

Agape Amponsah-Mensah is a third-year student pursuing a double major in Equity Studies and African Studies. Agape currently acts as the African Students’ Association Public Relations Officer. Conveniently, she also happens to be a good friend of mine, so I decided to interview her to gain an understanding of Black History Month from a student who is a ‘Black Canadian’ (and on why she prefers to simply be called ‘Canadian’, but more on that later). Accompanying her is friend Elo, a fourth-year History/Diaspora and Transnational Studies student who serves as the Educational Director of the Black Students’ Association, who also offered a unique insight on the setbacks of Black History Month.

Both ladies share the consensus that Black History Month is problematic. “Canada claims to be a ‘mosaic’, a melting pot society, and yet you still label it ‘black’ history… that already segregates the black community in itself,” Agape argues. She believes the month of observance steers closer towards trivializing black history, rather than promoting it. As such, she prefers not to be labeled a Black Canadian. “Yes, I’m black. Yes, I’m Canadian. But the phrase itself is a setback because it suggests that I’m not a genuine Canadian, when really, I’m as Canadian as Canadian gets. I have learnt to embrace the multiculturalism that comes behind being a Canadian who isn’t a white Canadian. But it was nothing that was influenced by Black History Month at all.”

Elo interjects to add another major setback of Black History Month — the homogenization of one race. “It’s a celebration that draws from African-American history, which has its good intentions, but it ignores all the hundreds of other distinct diasporas within Canada itself. That means that there’s a lot of generalization when it comes to the prejudices associated with ‘black culture’. And everyone may celebrate ‘blackness’, but only a certain type.” Being of mixed ancestry myself, I imagine this would be similar in some respect to everyone assuming you celebrate Chinese New Year just because you are Asian (FYI: the Lunar New Year is celebrated by many other different ethnicities and nationalities, each with their own traditions).

Agape continues, “being black is different from being African — for example, having to deal with hair, getting it done at a salon — that’s black culture, not African culture.” That said, she expresses great pride in being black and says it plays a vital role in where she fits in at U of T, especially as a minority at the university. “You see what education means to someone who is like yourself. You become hyper-aware of your race, and you’re constantly having to defend your ‘blackness’ even if it’s something you don’t personally identify with. When asking for an example, Elo lists having to give your thoughts on a certain issue of slavery even if you don’t have one as a major one. “There’s always the comfort in being surrounded by individuals who can share your understanding of identity and culture, as that’s hard to find around campus,” Agape adds.

As a final word of advice, Agape encourages fellow students to embrace their roots. “Understand that we are in a place of privilege, to gain an education like this, but don’t allow that to skew your views of countries that are not westernized. If you are African, Caribbean, anything, consider that you have a home in Canada but remember that who you are as an individual is multi-faceted in culture.

I asked her how should students embody and empower being black, if Black History Month detracts from the very purpose of its inception. Agape insists on the importance of not letting prejudices define who you are as an individual. “If you want to change the black stereotype because of a stereotypical view of ‘black culture’, then you as an individual will need to help progress the world’s mentality of what it means to be a black person, by embracing who you are every day.”

Get Your Adventure On

I hope everyone had a wonderful reading week! I spent most of my time eating, sleeping, and watching The Office. Some might say this was an unproductive use of my time, and I would have to agree. But it was awesome!

I regret, however, that I stayed inside so much. Last year, I went up north to South River to visit a friend who works near Algonquin Park. We stayed in a log cabin and went snowshoeing and saw a family of deer and got stuck in a snowstorm. It was a regular adventure, and it was GREAT!

Although reading week is over, there are still plenty of weekends left to get outside. An outdoor adventure is especially important at this time of year, because it can seem so difficult to actually GO DO IT. Luckily, there is a club designed specifically to help you. It’s called the U of T Outing Club.

Fifty-years old, the U of T Outing Club is committed to getting students, professors, staff, and alumni out of their classrooms and offices and houses and into the wild.

I got a chance to meet with an executive of UTOC, who helped explain what the club is all about. First of all, the club is about meeting people. With such a long history, the club has attracted a large number of people from different places in their lives. A lot of exchange program students join UTOC, because it’s a great way for students to explore Canada beyond Toronto. Every member, however, shares a love for outdoor adventure.

In addition to planning and hosting outdoor adventures like camping, canoeing, caving, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, kayaking, and rock-climbing, UTOC also owns a cabin in the Niagara Escarpment that they use almost every weekend for group getaways. The club has also organized road trips into northern Ontario, around Georgian Bay and even Manitoulin Island!

The heart and soul of UTOC are its members. Trips and adventures are usually planned and lead by group members, while the executive team helps with the headachey technical stuff that can sometimes seem burdensome and difficult. It is UTOC’s goal to help students become comfortable and safe in taking the initiative to plan and experience outdoor adventures beyond the U of T campus. They’ve been doing it for 50 years!

The club website offers a detailed calendar of upcoming events, and they have office hours on Wednesdays 3-5 at Sid Smith. If you have an idea for an outdoor adventure that you needs help putting together, don’t hesitate to contact UTOC!

I’ve been reading Jean-Paul Sartre, and he writes that life becomes an adventure only in the re-telling of events. But I say there is much adventure in the real act of living, much, much adventure. So get out there, visit UTOC if you need some help, and get into it!

‘Til next time, stay diamond, U of T!

- Stephen.

* Photos courtesy of Michael Chahley

Adventures with NSSE, the Student Engagement Survey

So, NSSE . . . Oh, you mean Nessie, the giant, Scottish lake monster. Um, well, sort of . . .

Here, let me explain!

If you’re in first or fourth year, you may have received an email from the President of U of T, Meric S. Gertler, asking for your participation in the National Survey of Student Engagement. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 1.34.51 PM

Basically, U of T “wants to improve your educational experience” and we, the students, can help. In fact, we can actively change the university experience for the better. How? By filling out this online survey. Plus, you could win prizes!

Actually, Simba, change is easy—with NSSE! I’m not saying that filling out the survey will instantly make U of T the best university in the world, but it will contribute to the on-going mission to make U of T better for students.

I spoke with David Newman, Director of the Office of Student Life, and he helped me understand what NSSE is all about. He explained that the survey helps the people who run U of T identify the strengths of a U of T education and prioritize issues for change. The survey reveals important information on how students engage with the university, on academic, social, institutional, and personal levels, which allows the head-honchos to judge the efficacy and relevance of U of T’s programs and services for students. Sounds pretty good, right?

Past NSSE results have helped change U of T with things like First-Year Foundational Programs like Vic One, the Student Initiative Fund, NGSIS (our online student resource network), Interactive Campus Maps, Mentorship Resource Centre, the new Co-Curricular Record, and more. In short, NSSE gets things done!

The actual survey takes about 15 minutes. It’s all multiple-choice questions, no writing. Just read, think, click, and repeat!

The survey asks about your courses, how often you engage in class, whether your courses influence your understanding of societal, political, and racial issues, and how helpful are your instructors.

The survey asks about your assignment types, your study habits, and whether you have any career/academic paths and plans like internships, studying abroad, independent research courses.

It asks about your interaction with non-academic areas of U of T, like housing services, your registrar, and academic advising. It asks about the university’s impact on your development as a person. It asks about your social-life, work, family-issues and your experience with U of T support resources.

It asks if you could start all over would you still go to U of T. That’s an interesting question. What do you think?

Then it asks you specific questions about your current year, what you study, what grades you get, how many courses you take. Then it asks your sex, year of birth, ethnicity, and that kind of stuff.

The last thing is an option to add any personal thoughts, concerns, or issues. You can elaborate on your university experience. You can suggest improvements. You can tell the university anything you want about your time at U of T. In the end, what’s most important is the 15 minutes you took to participate in making U of T a better university for yourself and future students.

‘Til next time, stay diamond U of T!

- Stephen

Making Mistakes at the U of T Public Speaking Club

On the fifth floor of OISE, in a large room full of wheely-chairs and a whole wall of windows, the U of T Public Speaking Club comes together. Every Friday from 3-5pm the club holds its general meeting, an open session for newcomers and regular members. Each meeting the club explores a new theme of public speaking, and last Friday the theme was making mistakes.

This was my first time at UTPS. I heard about it online before the break and made a mental note to check it out. As it turns out, the club is still pretty new. The president, Jeff Cui, created the club to give students a comfortable, welcoming space to practice the art of public speaking, a skill that Jeff, and the whole UTPS exec team, considers valuable in many ways.

Before the meeting began, I got to speak with Llyvell Gomes, the Vice-President, who told me more about the club’s real goal. It’s all about creating a warm, friendly environment, he said, where students from all disciplines and experience levels can come together and practice some vocal self-expression. Whether you’re working on speaking more in class and tutorial, or practicing the speech you’ve written for your brother’s wedding, UTPS is here to help and encourage you.

The club is all about active involvement. Yes, they want everyone to be comfortable, but they also want to push limits and move beyond comfort zones. Basically, public speaking is a fear. For most people, at least. UTPS recognizes that, and they want to overcome it.

We began with some vocal warm-ups. We had to strike a ‘power’ pose and shout out our name. They said sometimes they sing a song, anything to liven the pulse. Then we broke off into smaller groups of themed exercises.

The first exercise was to stand up in your group and talk about what you look forward to on your way home. While you were talking, however, you had to pick a moment to stop. You had to stand in silence. You had to feel your face redden and your hands tingle, as you look into the eyes of your audience. Then, once you’d basked in the awkward pressure and silence of your ‘mistake’, you got to sit down and the next person went.

The next exercise was to do something embarrassing before you start talking. I did a silly little dance. Someone else did an impersonation of Russell Peters. Another person sang She Bangs, William Hung style.

It was weird, it was silly, but it was a lot of fun. Everyone was laughing, and the environment was very welcoming and supportive. No one in the club is a professional. Some are more comfortable, more experienced, but all levels and perspectives are welcomed and appreciated.

The meeting ended with an opportunity for anyone to come up to the front and speak. I stayed in my seat. Maybe next time. I’m certainly glad that a club like UTPS exists at U of T (a little late for me), and I’d highly recommend it to every single person in the world.

‘Til next time, stay diamond U of T

- Stephen



Finding Massey College…and More

Last Monday I heard about a reading by author David Bezmozgis being held at Massey College and decided to check it out. Stepping through the gated entranceway, past the porter’s lodge, along the stone pathway of the water garden, I was unsure of my expectations. I can say now that I was pleasantly assured, surprised and encouraged by my experience.

If you didn’t know, the University of Toronto is home to the Jack McClelland Writer in Residence program, under the joint sponsorship of the English Department and Massey College. The writer joins the U of T community to work with staff and students in the field of creative writing. Last year they had Joy Kogawa, and this year they are pleased to host David Bezmozgis.

In addition to holding office hours for students, the writer in residence also leads a non-credit creative writing workshop, usually in the spring term. There is a limited enrolment, and it’s very competitive (seems a lot of people out there want to be writers).



Admission to the workshop, however, all depends on the tastes of the resident writer. Maybe he will like your work, maybe he will hate it. Who really knows? If you like creative writing, apply, apply, apply!

If you have never visited Massey College, please do! I often hear people comment on the similarity of U of T to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But Massey College is different. Massey College is more reminiscent of a Buddhist monastery or something.



Tucked, rather nondescriptly, into the west side of Devonshire Place, across from William Graham Library, Massey College can be easily missed (especially in the winter). Inside, however, there are study spaces, a dining hall, and a quaint library. In a way, Massey College feels like a separate oasis within U of T, a secret get-away for those “deeper” meditations. Or just a nice place for a nap!

The Upper Library, where the reading was held, is a small, charming room, lined with books and blue stained glass windows. I had expected a larger turnout, but there was a good mix of workshop members, fans and readers, and academics. It was a casual reading, followed by a reception of coffee and tea and things.

David Bezmozgis, whose latest book sounds like a moral-political thriller, pleasantly debunked the stereotype of the disgruntled, cynical novelist. Well-spoken and approachable, Bezmozgis explained that writing can be a force of enquiry into unknown, disagreeable issues. If you look at the world and see that something is wrong, then write about it!



He spoke also of his process. Three years of research, reading memoirs, travelling, and endlessly talking to people. I found this, most of all, to be a helpful reminder that the skills and habits we learn at university are very useful, and often necessary in later life. Even the free, boundless writer has to do research, readings, and talk to people!

These events and programs are great because they encourage young writers to pursue their passion and their craft. We have the opportunity to meet and mingle with professionals, faculty and other students, who share similar interests and goals. As a professor of creative writing adroitly noted, even ‘old’ writers can benefit from encouragement.

U of T is home to many programs and groups, and events are happening all the time! If you follow your interests, even on a whim, you never know what opportunity will just appear out of the side of a snow covered street. #TryitUofT

‘Til next time. Stay diamond.

- Stephen

Fun Times at the UC Date Auction

At five minutes to eight pm, Sammy’s Pub at Hart House was bustling. There was a constant chatter coming from every table, as everyone talked and laughed waiting excitedly for the night’s entertainment. Last night I attended a University College organized Date Auction, the proceeds of which went to support the Toronto Humane Society and the UC Water Dragons.

The pub, in the lower level of Hart House, was already packed when I arrived. At the front of the room there was a line-up of eager students, all holding their 19+ I.D.’s to receive a free drink ticket. On the left side there was a round table of free catered food. Yep, all free!

Watching new people arrive, as they spotted friends and hunted for seats, I was filled with a really good feeling. It was the kind of event one would expect from a smaller arts college. But I suppose that’s exactly what it was, replete with college cheers, “Hey UC! Can I see you [ I probably can’t write this]“. There was a strong sense of school spirit, community and friendship, and I was glad to be there.

The hosts of the evening, Paige and Sarah, could be seen dancing on the stage, priming themselves for the task of guiding the show. The music, once it started, promptly changed several times in mid-song, but everyone was still smiling and laughing. There was a wonderful vibe of amateur, improvised style, which is exactly how a college event should feel. It’s about having fun, expressing oneself and being involved.

Once the music started, everyone settled into a seat (sometimes two per seat). That seems to be a universal signal that the show is about to begin. The “auctionees” had been clandestinely whisked away into the hall, the food platters were devoured, everyone had a free drink, and we were ready for the show!

First off, the hosts explained how the auction would work. They accepted all forms of payment, except human sacrifice, and the biddings would begin at twenty dollars. Then, in came the auctionees!

There were ten of them, a good group of brave, adorable souls. But they were more than pretty faces. Each one had prepared some talent or other to help encourage their bidders. Also, the dates were complemented with gift-cards to restaurants and bars, such as The Keg Steak House.

I stayed only for the first three rounds, but right from the start there was singing and sparkler-lit dancing. These auctionees wanted to be sold. And the audience didn’t disappoint. The first auctionee went for $170! People were throwing hands up all over. With a good cause, such as an adorable kitten, even starving university students can be charitable.

I have faith that the rest of the event went off without a hitch. I did hear, from someone or other, that Michael Mousa’s friend, Michelle, stole the show. You’re welcome.

Anyway, I hope everyone had a great time. I was certainly laughing, which is all I ask for from any live show. There are many free and exciting events like this happening all over campus all the time. All you have to do is look for them and then #TryitUofT!

Stay Diamond,


Thinking About the Future

Just before we begin, let us take a brief pause. This is a fine moment in the academic year, before second semester really comes on full swing, to consider where we are, what we’ve done, and what we’d like to do next.

I am coming to the end of my university career. This semester I have two courses, both of which are electives. This is my fifth and final year, and I do feel that I have come a rather long way.

I can remember reaching the end of my first year and having to enroll in a Subject POSt, and deciding then that I wanted to study English rather than International Relations. I can remember the spring term of second year, when I scrambled to meet the early application deadline for the English Department’s creative writing seminar. And I can recall the end of my third year, when I discovered 4th year Independent Study course options, but was too late to apply for one. If only I had considered the matter earlier.

Once it starts, these next weeks are going to vanish into April. There is still a little bit of time right now, however, for proactive consideration of the future. The new Degree Explorer and Course Finder can help. So can looking through the Course Calendar. This is something, honestly, that I never did, but that I wish I had. Yeah, I still fared okay. But I’m certain there were many opportunities that I could have seized, and could have benefited from, if only I’d thought to look for them earlier.

I’m currently in the process of applying to Graduate School. It’s hectic and hurried and definitely cause for some unneeded stress. All because I didn’t think about it earlier; well, I thought about it, but not thoroughly. I never actually invested any time in the thought, rather I mused on the idea of Grad school. Now, I have to pay for my negligence, my indifference, my whimsical attitude towards my university career.

And it’s not just academics that can benefit from a moment’s consideration. Joining clubs and groups, trying out for athletic teams, applying for summer jobs, internships, or work-study programs with the university; there are many sides to life at U of T. For instance, this semester I’d like to visit the U of T Public Speaking Club to test my rhetorical skill, and frighten myself!  It’s not all about courses and grades. But whatever your goal happens to be, a little bit of forethought will certainly help focus your efforts.

It’s true what some of my fellow bloggers are saying; January is both the continuation of the academic year and the beginning of a brand new year and a chance for new opportunities. So take a few minutes, on the weekend maybe, right after breakfast or just before bed, put on some good music (I’ve been listening to this dude named Bach because it calms my grad school insanity), and think about what you might want to do next. And feel free to share your plans and pieces of advice with the rest of us at #TryitUofT!


Good to be back, U of T! Glad you stayed diamond!


Keep your books close, keep your friends & family closer

I’m a huge advocate of the notion that we are constantly learning just by virtue of living and it is up to us to be open to  the lessons, knowledge and wisdom that is presented to us every day. I learnt an important lesson over winter break that most textbooks don’t outline: keep your books close, but keep your friends and family closer.water

U of T has a reputation for being anti-social and is stereotyped as a school where students lock themselves up in a library or in their room in order to produce A’s (note: social isolation is not healthy!). This is often joked about on-campus—but every joke has a grain of truth to it, I think.

When my last final rolled around I was tired but glad that I could finally put my textbooks down. My schedule was suddenly free from the burden of essays, assignments and exams. I took a plane home and was immediately greeted by friends and family. It felt like I hadn’t spoken or seen them in such a long time.

Precisely because I hadn’t.

As the end of the break drew closer, I thought about how I would miss being surrounded by friends and family once I returned to school.  My last day at home was laced with sad goodbyes as my friends all left for their respective universities.

That’s when it clicked!

The holidays were time away from my books to be spent with loved ones but should a semester at school mean the inverse?

As I played back the events of the past semester in my head, I noticed that communication and interaction with my friends in Toronto had dwindled with the progression of the term.  We would set up coffee dates weekly, but eventually they would be pushed back further and further until all talk of seeing each other vanished.

I realized that a school semester shouldn’t mean an end to my social life. Unlike stationary, inaminate objects that are textbooks, my friends are interesting and dynamic and the times when our lives intersect are precious to me.

So this realization was a lesson for me and became the basis of my resolution for 2014:  to maintain an active social life throughout the semester and to find more balance between studying and socializing.  I plan to do this by not only scheduling but keeping time set aside to meet with friends, as well as planning study time that involves groups.

Did you do any reflecting over the break? Did you make any resolutions for the New Year? How do you plan to keep them?


Stepping Back to Lead

At U of T and in Toronto more generally, we are taught that one becomes a leader by taking the lead. If there is a club or company you think should exist, you start it. If there is a comment that needs saying in class, you say it. If there is any need for leadership, you step forward to lead.

How we're often taught to be a leader. (via

How we’re often taught to be a leader. (via

I, myself, have often become very wrapped up in this “leaders take the lead” mentality. I joined course unions, committees and teams like nobody’s business. I spoke up in class and wrote articles for newspapers about things that I thought needed saying.

But while wrapping myself up in this mentality, I forgot an important lesson: that leading from behind is an equally effective style of getting things done.

The first time I learned this lesson was from a friend who had a significant martial arts training and who hadn’t grown up in North America (both important as I think they offer different perspectives on leadership).

As we were discussing the different styles of leadership, he gave me the example of a group on a hike where the lead and the ‘sweep’ (at the end of the group) communicate with each other to make sure no stragglers get left in the woods. The ‘leader’ in front and ‘leader’ in back are equally important in such circumstances.

Is this leading from the front or behind? Depends on your perspective. (via

Is this leading from the front or behind? It depends on your perspective. (via

As we continued talking, the friend told me that he sometimes found the ‘lead from the front’ style offensive as those that lead from the front are often there because they assume they know best.

I could see where he was coming from. Not everyone who leads from the front is presumptuous, but anyone who has been in a group project with one dictatorial group member knows what it feels like.

So while re-thinking this idea of leadership recently, I figured I should be more aware about how much space I take up in conversations (I can talk a lot) and, when necessary, step forward with others, not for them.

Facilitating discussions instead of leading them, particularly in an evaluative environment like school, can be a difficult transition. But I think it’s important to remember that the rat race environments that encourage certain neuroses aren’t the only way to approach leadership. In other contexts, it can be much more effective to listen to what’s going on and take a step backwards to lead.

- Kay

5 Things Alumni Taught Me

It’s called Backpack to Briefcase. The idea is that students will benefit from early experience with the professional world, such as listening to industry lectures, attending faculty events, and meeting U of T alumni. This year B2B is offering program specific breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for students and Alumni to meet in a comfortable, laid-back environment where they can chat and learn a thing or two.

A week ago, I was invited to one of these dinners. My first reaction was:



I just imagined a terribly forced, awkward party—lots of silent eating noises, uncomfortable small talk, stiff jokes, phoney laughter, bizarre ‘Faculty Club’ dinner etiquette—the kind of situation that made my wannabe Danny Zuko run for the hills!

So, of course, I went. I’ve learned the value of attending unexpected events. If anything, it would give me a story to write.

But it turned out all right. It was good. It was interesting. Much different and better than I had feared. And best of all, I learned stuff. Stuff is my favourite thing to learn.

I thought I would share a thing or two. Here are 5 good ones, I think.

1. It’s okay.



Yes. It is. That mid-term you failed, it’s okay. That club you didn’t join, it’s okay. That interesting-looking someone you lacked the nerve to approach, it’s okay. Everything you think you missed or messed up, it’s really, really okay. There’s always next time.

2. Undergrad is the opening of a door.



It’s a struggle. We have to muster all our strength to push it open, but once we do that door is propped. Nothing can close it. It remains as a base where we can stand and look out. It remains as a reminder of our hard work. It remains as an excellent first step.

3. Entropy is confusing.



Luckily, life after graduation is not a closed system. In fact, there so many options that at least one of them is bound to come together into some form of order. Of all the Alumni I met during dinner, only one had found that “dream-job” of her undergrad, and it was blind luck. But then again, it proves it can happen.

4. Success takes time.



Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen overnight. Even if it feels like our true calling, we have to wait, and try, and try again. We have to keep our eyes open. Success comes in many different shapes and forms and sizes. We have to engage each opportunity with the same positivity, interest, and fulfilment as though it were success itself. Success is in every day, if we can find it and make it real.

5. People are people.



They like dancing. Or they don’t. They like talking. Or they don’t. They like ice-cream desserts, or hockey, or they don’t. I’ve heard that getting a career comes down to the people you know—your contacts. But I wasn’t listening before. Getting a career comes down to YOU. Networking is good and useful, but it’s not important. People are important. The woman with whom you have a conversation about Italy is important. The fact that she doesn’t want butter on her bread is important. Meeting people and actually getting to know them is important. (If you look away from dancing Abed, he seems to move faster!)

In addition to the B2B program, there is also a club called Dinner with 12 Strangers that encourages student, faculty, and alumni engagement. I’ve heard it’s a lot of fun. If I get a chance, I’ll try it. I never know, I might learn stuff.


‘Til next time, U of T, stay diamond.