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Op-ed: Why it’s important to create a Black graduate community

A BGSA executive reflects on the group’s mission, activities, impact
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COURTESY OF LAYAN ELFAKI
COURTESY OF LAYAN ELFAKI

As a minoritized individual pursuing higher education, I have witnessed the lack of opportunities available to underrepresented youth, which ultimately impedes one’s professional development. 

Aware of this difficulty, I became extensively involved in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives during my final two years of undergraduate studies. Once I graduated in June of 2020, I intended to continue my EDI endeavours, but I was uncertain of the avenue through which that could be accomplished. 

Fortunately, I came across the Black Graduate Students Association (BGSA) recruitment posters. I applied and ended up being elected the outreach coordinator for this academic year. My role encompasses reaching out to university, community, and industry partners to provide opportunities and resources to underrepresented graduate and undergraduate students on campus. 

Founded in 2018, the goal of the BGSA is to support Black students through initiatives, events, and engaging in discourse. Working toward that mission, we planned and held monthly events relating to networking, mental health, and a few socializing events. 

Thus far, we’ve held a series of networking events aimed at providing interprofessional assistance for students looking to venture into the job market. For instance, this past networking event, we invited reputable industry recruiters to have one-on-one meetings with students in a virtual interview setting to provide constructive feedback regarding their job interview skills. 

Moreover, the industry and campus recruiters addressed various struggles that candidates face when applying for jobs, while providing advice on how to boost their job applications. Additionally, through meeting with the industry recruiters, I realized that many well-known firms are now actively working toward EDI by allocating resources to facilitate recruitment of underrepresented individuals.

In my experience, I’ve found that highly qualified marginalized individuals don’t apply to such positions simply because they aren’t aware they exist. Thus, the BGSA plays a vital role in providing such individuals with access to opportunities. I was pleasantly surprised with the success of this event, and the passion and dedication of the industry recruiters to support the BGSA’s membership. 

In addition to networking events, we organized a very successful panel of Black mental health experts. While fostering a safe space, we invited professionals at various levels of training to engage in productive dialogue regarding when to seek help, ways to stay healthy during the pandemic, and resources available for individuals facing crisis. 

The event panelists’ honesty and vulnerability was most impactful as it allowed for the audience to reciprocate a similar openness as they shared their experiences with mental illness. The BGSA’s crucial role in formulating these community spaces cannot be understated. 

We also aimed to foster a sense of community through monthly social events that tended to be less formal and structured. These included movie nights and game nights, as well as study sessions. However, the most fruitful social event we held was organized in collaboration with the BGSA of the University of Alberta as well as the African Graduate Student Association at the University of Waterloo.

Held this past January, the inter-university social enabled students across these three campuses to interact while partaking in stimulating Black trivia and engaging in deeper conversations regarding lived experiences of Black graduate students. 

I was especially excited by the prospect of collaborating across universities because not only does it allow the sharing of opportunities and resources, but it also allows cultivation of long-term relationships between these associations. This is especially valuable considering the rarity of opportunities. 

As for upcoming events, we’re currently in the process of planning a research symposium for this May. The goal of this symposium will be to provide Black students with an opportunity to showcase their research while simultaneously learning about the research of fellow students. 

We’re aiming to enable international submissions to expand the BGSA’s reach while building a community among Black graduate students on a global scale. Black students can join our membership by reaching out to us on social media to be notified when submissions open. 

If it’s not evident already, it’s been a pleasure being part of the BGSA; through my involvement, I was able to make active contributions to support fellow Black students while expanding my interpersonal skills and social network in the process. I also got to be part of a community of people I could relate to in terms of experiences, lived struggles, and humour. All these factors enriched my experience and I’m very grateful for it. 

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning the dedication and kindness of my executive team, which has not only inspired me to work harder but has also brightened many days during this pandemic. All of this couldn’t have been possible without the BGSA. 

 

Layan Elfaki is a graduate student at the Institute of Medical Science. She is the outreach coordinator for the BGSA.