Renatta Austin, third-year law student and VP central of the Black Students Law Association of Canada, says that the lack of black role models at U of T has had an impact on her career decisions.
Born in Grenada and having immigrated to Canada as a young child, Austin says that her family held high expectations and strongly encouraged her to pursue her dreams.
Ever since her first year as a Woodsworth political science and criminology undergrad in 2005, Austin knew she wanted to be a lawyer.
“My whole approach to undergrad was just to get in, and get out,” she says. “It was really a means to an end, and at the time I knew that I wanted to go to law school.
However, during the last stretch of her undergrad years, Austin realized that she preferred research and contemplated becoming a professor. But her reservations stemmed from the lack of black role models at the university, causing her to question the acceptance of black female professors.
“Becoming a professor at that [time] didn’t seem attainable — I’d never had a black professor up to that point at U of T,” she recalls. “I hadn’t even met any, but I had met black lawyers.”
Austin believes that for some students, having few black role models at U of T can have an impact on career decisions and can also affect enrollment from the black community.
“One of the challenges that I personally experience with other black students’ perspectives is that many don’t apply because they don’t think they’ll get in — and even if they do, they don’t think they will fit in because they don’t see other black students there and have heard negative things about the school,” she explains.
To counter this, Austin launched a campaign in collaboration with U of T law, called See Yourself Here, an event that aims to encourage blacks and other visible minorities to pursue a legal education.
Despite U of T law’s mission statement on diversity, Austin believes that there’s still room for improvement in the faculty’s minority representation.
“I think that the school recruits nationally, so they aren’t looking for people that are necessarily from the local area,” she explains. “But number two, I think that because of the school standards, U of T doesn’t take on the same holistic approach that some other universities do.”
When asked what message she hopes to relay to her community, Austin replies simply: “Don’t count yourself out, and don’t count other black students out.”