Social science changemakers
By Johanne Albert-Cardinal and Kelly Haggart
The real test of a great education is whether graduates go on to have meaningful careers and satisfying lives, says Victoria Barham, new vice-dean of undergraduate studies at uOttawa’s Faculty of Social Sciences.
“One of the faculty’s strengths is equipping students for lives well lived,” said Barham, a long-time professor of economics who also serves on the University’s Board of Governors.
“The education we offer is not just for landing a first job," she said. "Our graduates continue to get interesting jobs 10 and 25 years later. Although the paths students follow after graduation are not always linear, you can see the link between the skills they acquired at uOttawa and their subsequent careers.”
Barham advises current students to take advantage of the many diverse opportunities to become involved with campus clubs and activities, such as the uO2.0 program. Offered in partnership with the Career Development Centre, the faculties and services, the program organizes many professional development activities for students and young alumni.
“This engagement can ignite students’ imaginations and help them develop skills that are critical to later job market success,” she said. “It allows them to bring together real-world experiences with the ideas they’re encountering in classrooms — that’s when it all starts to come together and education happens.”
Meet four alumni under 40 whose stories illustrate the impressive capacity of uOttawa grads to find and follow their passion. Lidia Kayembe, Amneet Singh, Soukaina Boutiyeb and Liam Martin are all making a mark, locally or globally, as they build rewarding careers.
One of Barham’s former students, Lidia Kayembe (PhD '14), is out in the world making a difference in the field of health economics. Born in Poland to a Polish mother and father from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), she moved with her family to Montreal at age 10.
Following her uOttawa PhD in economics, Kayembe received a two-year fellowship from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, where she now works as an epidemiologist.
In late 2015, she jumped into the deep end, going to work at the epicentre of the Ebola crisis in Guinea. Her duties included preparing daily countrywide data reports that helped track — and eventually halt — the epidemic.
“Travelling to challenging places — that’s what I signed up for,” Kayembe said. Later hired onto CDC’s measles elimination team, she is frequently found in hazardous regions such as northeast Nigeria. “We’re taking some risks going there, but the impact of the work makes it worth it.”
On a recent trip to the DRC, she trained senior health officials on how to finance immunization programs sustainably, drawing on economic concepts honed during her uOttawa PhD.
Students pursuing a graduate degree in economics should expect ups and downs, but also try to stick with it, Kayembe said.
“The skills you build doing a doctorate are very transferrable, and it pays to persevere. The PhD program at uOttawa is really high quality and opened a lot of doors for me.”
Some say politics is a contact sport — in which case, Amneet Singh's master's in conflict studies should be serving him well in the rough and tumble of a political campaign. He is communications director for NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh, who is vying to make Canadian political history by becoming the first visible minority to lead a national party.
"Doing the degree in Ottawa sparked my interest in getting involved in federal politics,” Amneet Singh (MA '11) said. "It also brought access to resources and connections you can’t get elsewhere in Canada."
His major research paper for the uOttawa/Saint Paul University master's focused on violence suffered by Sikhs in India and the ongoing impact of trauma in diaspora communities. His work on the issue earned him a place (along with Jagmeet Singh) in a Canadian Museum for Human Rights exhibit, as well as in its permanent oral history collection. It also led to an abiding passion for justice, healing and political inclusion for marginalized communities.
That zeal is evident in his current role. Jagmeet Singh's campaign has made a special effort to engage immigrant and Indigenous communities, as well as young people, Amneet Singh said. “Trying to build an inclusive movement is really exciting and fun.”
He advises students to choose a research topic they feel truly passionate about. "And do this work in a pragmatic manner that allows you to take it and effect some sort of change.”
Soukaina Boutiyeb (BSocSc ’11, MA ’13) is a young leader who cares about the rights of francophones and women from minority backgrounds. In May of this year, at age 27, she was named executive director of the Alliance des femmes de la francophonie canadienne.
A native of Morocco, her personal experience led her naturally to programs in international development and women’s studies, followed by a master’s in conflict studies.
“The realities of coming from a single-parent family and witnessing poverty and social injustice in my home country have had a large influence on my life,” she said.
Her studies made her more aware of challenges all around her, she said. “I quickly realized there were socio-economic problems right here in Ottawa, particularly in the francophone community. I wanted to be part of the solution.”
Boutiyeb began volunteering with many local francophone organizations. At university, she started a show focusing on women’s lives on CHUO, uOttawa’s campus-community radio station. She is a member of the board of ACFO Ottawa (Association canadienne-française de l'Ontario) and chair of the board of Ottawa’s Maison d’amitié, a women’s shelter. For two years, she served as executive director of the heritage group Réseau du patrimoine franco-ontarien.
She advises students and alumni to get involved in a cause they care about. “We all have something to give to our community. Sometimes, many small projects can make a big impact.”
As a boy, Liam Martin (BSocSc ’07) had one goal: to become an Olympic pairs figure skater. In 2002, he was an internationally ranked ice dancer until a knee injury shattered the dream.
“But skating taught me discipline and work ethic, which has served me well ever since,” he said.
He picked himself up and began a uOttawa sociology degree the following year. “I’ve always had an interest in how people behave and interact,” said Martin, whose new ambition was to become a professor.
While completing a master’s at McGill University, his career path took another sharp turn when he launched a virtual tutoring business. He sold that first start-up in 2013 and co-founded two others. Staff.com and Time Doctor, which provide software that helps employers and workers track tasks and productivity, have become profitable global ventures.
“We want to empower people to work where they want, whenever they want,” said Martin, who attributes his business success to an understanding of human behaviour gained in his sociology studies. He also practises what he preaches. As he leads a team of 80 people working in homes and offices around the world, he is usually based, with his laptop, in a different country every month.
Martin advises budding entrepreneurs to network, find mentors and stay on top of advances in technology. “Be prepared to start at the bottom and don’t presume you know everything. Be ambitious but also humble — and work very hard.”
Are you a graduate of uOttawa who would like to inspire current students, offering them insights and a vision of what their future could hold? To learn about ways to get involved with our mentoring activities and campus events, email Johanne.Albert@uOttawa.ca
Lidia Kayembe (with ID badge around her neck) at a mobile vaccination post in Madagascar.