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Engineers celebrate diversity

Engineering Positive Space brings students together for Pink Shirt Day
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Engineering students gathered in the pit for Pink Shirt Day. RUSABA ALAM/THE VARSITY
Engineering students gathered in the pit for Pink Shirt Day. RUSABA ALAM/THE VARSITY

As I entered “the pit,” overwhelmed by a large crowd of students in pink shirts, I was greeted by the loud cheering and exceptional musical talents of The Lady Godiva Memorial Band — and then, they fired the cannon.

Anti-bullying efforts have been a huge part of the operations of Engineering Positive Space, that provides a safe and positive space for all members of the LGBTQ engineering community. On February 25, engineering students Nicole Doucette and Justin Tobia organized the third annual Pink Shirt Day to “promote acceptance and diversity” at the University of Toronto.

“I think it’s fantastic that we have an event like this that raises the awareness and reminds the students that bullying is not acceptable,” says Teresa Nguyen, president of the Engineering Society.

Pink Shirt Day, now a Canada-wide phenomenon, started in response to bullying. “There is a history behind it, and the story is back in 2007 where a male student [who] wore a pink t-shirt was actively bullied,” Nguyen explains, adding, “Students decided to take a stand against this and bought a whole bunch of pink t-shirts and told everyone to wear [them] and basically made a statement, a visual statement saying this is not acceptable.”

As a U of T engineer, she emphasizes the importance of anti-bullying efforts. “However we can, we will organize ourselves to make sure that we let people know that [bullying] is not something that our community accepts,” says Nguyen.

Peter Weiss, a senior lecturer at U of T and the faculty advisor for Engineering Positive Space says, “This is the third year that we’ve done this, and what was amazing to me last year is, when we went around to talk to students and talk to people in engineering about it, that their immediate response was, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a tradition,’ and this is now a tradition…And what a great tradition it is to have… one day where we say, we won’t bully.”

Susan McCahan, vice-provost, innovations in undergraduate education, thinks that it’s important to celebrate the diversity within the engineering community.

“Because it is a very tight knit community, I think it’s really important to demonstrate that it’s not only tight knit, but diverse… and to make that diversity really visible, at least once a year,” she says.

Weiss says that events like Pink Shirt Day are very important. “It’s because actions speak louder than words,” he says. “We can say we are diverse and inclusive, but when you actually come down here on February 25 and you see people you’ve never seen before wearing pink shirts, you kind of think: there’s a lot of good will that I may have known that was there, and that means a lot to students, and faculty,” says Weiss.

For Ron Suprun, who is Lady Godiva for the current academic year, the significance of the event goes much deeper. “I think Pink Shirt Day is important, especially when you are in engineering, where you have such a reputation of being a program with only one type of person, so it’s really important to show that we support diversity,” Suprun says, adding, “Even though we might not 100 per cent represent diversity quite yet, this is the first step toward doing that, toward inviting people of all backgrounds into our program, by showing them that, should they choose to come to engineering, they’ll be especially welcome.”

Suprun dressed in drag, which represents a step forward in the engineering community. “In terms of Pink Shirt Day as an anti-bullying thing in general, I think it’s a great initiative, just to show solidarity within small oppressed groups,” Suprun says, continuing, “Because it’s our numbers that gives us our strength and this message can reach people far and wide, and having such a distinct thing like a pink shirt really gives us a symbol of strength.”

The chanting of the cheer, “We are the engineers,” is what struck me as the most positive part of the event — no matter which other groups they identify with, students particpaing all came together as engineers, respecting each other’s diversity.