Our graduates: Inspiring, inclusive, innovative and determined

Posted on Monday, October 31, 2022

Zahra Clayborne, Alise Gertsenchtein, Stephanie Hajjar, Carlos Rivas and Kristen Thomasen

From left to right: Zahra Clayborne, Alise Gertsenchtein, Stephanie Hajjar, Carlos Rivas and Kristen Thomasen

While some students are at the halfway mark of their first term, others are putting on their gowns for fall 2022 convocation. On November 6, some 2,000 students will receive their diplomas and celebrate an unforgettable moment.

Let’s meet some new graduates and find out about their journeys.

Studying the environment to bring about change

A Calgary native, Zahra Clayborne left her mark on the uOttawa campus in 2016.

During her studies, she says that she “didn’t belong.” For her, “the problem was not diversity in the classroom, but rather the lack of diversity among our professors and how little social factors affecting the discipline were taken into account.”

Concerned over the situation as well over the Black Lives Matter movement and current events, including the death of George Floyd, Zahra wanted to change things not only for her cohort but also for the student cohorts to come, who, like her, didn’t feel they belonged. “I decided to act and I put together an open letter to my school, which I felt had forgotten to acknowledge what was happening in the United States.” The letter to director of the School of Epidemiology and Public Health of the Faculty of Medicine was signed by many students and professors.

“The director heard us. We made some demands, including to put together an equity, diversity and inclusion group. The group started in the following year.” Her letter brought genuine change, encouraging equity and inclusion initiatives at the University of Calgary and other universities. What has stayed with Zahra from this influential period of her journey is the importance of expressing oneself and of making oneself heard: “Just because you aren't in a higher position doesn’t mean they don’t hear you,” she says.

Adding on-campus experiences to build a profile that opens doors

Alise Gertsenchtein will leave convocation with an honours bachelor of commerce with an option in human resources management from the Telfer School of Management.

During her studies, Alise says she actively participated in student life: “I was especially involved with the Career Centre and the Telfer Competitions Committee. I was a Career Centre ambassador. I basically helped students prepare for their future career! I helped organize networking events and promote workshops to further career development.” She also took part in case competitions such as the Jeux du Commerce Central, the Jeux du Commerce and Happening Marketing.

A proud Gee-Gee, Alise gradually found her way, getting more and more involved in campus life. This allowed her to “meet many people who share the same ideas, to do important networking for (her) career development, and especially, to learn more about (herself).”

Alise says that “getting involved opens more doors than you can imagine. And even if it takes more time, it’s worth it in the long run.”

She now works as a consultant for IBM, a position she got thanks to the diverse experience she gained on campus. Alise lives in Ottawa.

Finding the ideal setting to further research on Crohn’s disease

Stephanie Hajjar moved to Lebanon with her family when she was very young. In 2016, she decided to return to Canada and study at the University of Ottawa. “At that time, I was looking for a place to settle down that could offer me great opportunities, so I immediately thought of Ottawa.”

After doing a bachelor’s in biomedical science, Stephanie wasn’t really sure what she wanted to do. That’s when she met the person who would be her doctoral thesis supervisor, Dr. Subash Sad. “I went to this awards of excellence ceremony in my faculty, and I was introduced to the professor, his laboratory and the microbiology and immunology program. I was immediately won over.”

This unplanned meeting would be beneficial — six years later, she would become a doctor of microbiology and immunology and help advance research on Crohn’s disease.

“I'm forever indebted for the opportunities this university offered me. I would not be where I am today without them,” she says. During her studies, Stephanie was able to do a volunteer placement abroad, receive many scholarships covering all her tuition fees, improve her French, and especially, enjoy excellent conditions for conducting her research. She is particularly pleased with the space to collaborate, the facilities, the funds available and the diverse research projects underway.

After receiving a doctorate from uOttawa, Stephanie decided to do a postdoc at Harvard. As for what’s next, she plans to return to Canada and hopes to one day “give back to the University of Ottawa community” in thanks for what she was able to have as a student.

Combining art and social development

Carlos Rivas is an international student from Lima, Peru. On November 6, he’ll receive a joint honours bachelor’s in communication and sociology.

Carlos says that his experience at uOttawa was rich on many levels. For one thing, he was able to improve his French. “I decided to come to improve my French in a unique bilingual setting and to benefit from generous scholarships, particularly for international francophone students,” he says. Among other things, he took part in Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute conversation groups.

In addition to his readings, exams and activities in French, Carlos also shared his passion for Latin dance in various ways. He was president of the salsa club and also taught dance at the University on Tuesdays before the pandemic.

For four months during the pandemic, Carlos took part in a development program with marginalized communities in Colombia, while taking courses remotely. “Local and international participants had exchanges on the impact of art in creating social and intercultural connections,” he says. As well, during the pandemic, he created Latin rhythm and dance interventions in urban spaces in Canada and Latin America and streamed them on social media.

“I collaborated with musicians and dancers on a project blending the traditional and the contemporary, the local and the global. I was even able to analyze this creative project in a scholarly text and in a presentation at a Department of Communication conference. I thank the University of Ottawa for its openness and support of artistic innovation.”

For Carlos, music and dance enable self-discovery, self-awareness, connection between communities and connection between cultures. They’re also a way to connect people of different views from around the world. Carlos would like to explore this perspective on art, starting with a master’s and continuing — “why not?” — with a PhD.

Showing unthinkable determination and receiving community support

A Hamilton native now living in Vancouver, Kristen Thomasen will receive a doctorate in common law at fall convocation. She was also named class valedictorian. Kristen specializes in legal regulation of robotic and automated technologies, including issues related to privacy and surveillance, as well as to public spaces.

While her professional and personal lives have been interspersed with particularly difficult moments, Kristen has remained a model of determination.

A first significant sad event: the death of her friend, mentor and thesis supervisor, Ian Kerr, in August 2019. She still feels this enormous loss every day.

Then, the pandemic started, and with one-year-old twins at home, she had to interrupt her own research because she had to care for her children and continue teaching. The trials didn’t stop: In the final stages of her thesis, one of her twins, then three years old, was diagnosed with leukemia.

Kristen says she was able to persevere thanks to an incredible network of people. “All the members of my thesis committee, as well as the Faculty of Law support staff, professors and other students were incredibly supportive and understanding,” she adds.

Professor Kerr had a high opinion of Kristen and her work. That’s why he made sure before his passing that she could continue her project under two co-supervisors, Teresa Scassa and Jennifer Chandler.

“Kristen is a wonderful choice for valedictorian. She has produced a wonderful dissertation and joined us in the ranks of legal academia, all while navigating the loss of a beloved supervisor and other major life challenges.  She embodies not just academic excellence, but also the fortitude that so many of our students demonstrate in pursuing their goals in spite of what are often very significant difficulties.” ― Teresa Scassa and Jennifer Chandler

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