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New scholarship for Black MBA students at Rotman works to break down systemic barriers

Scholarship co-founders talk about making higher education more accessible
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The scholarship aims to increase Black representation within Rotman. COURTESY OF CYTONN PHOTOGRAPHY/UNSPLASH
The scholarship aims to increase Black representation within Rotman. COURTESY OF CYTONN PHOTOGRAPHY/UNSPLASH

Content warning: This article discusses anti-Black racism and violence.

When third-year Master of Business Administration (MBA) Rotman students Jathiban Panchalingam and Bilal Habib saw a lack of Black students in their classrooms and cohorts, they wanted to help invoke positive change by starting the Morning and Evening MBA Black Students Advancement Scholarship.

The scholarship is currently accepting donations through the Rotman class funds program. The goal is to create an endowed scholarship, which would mean the money is invested in a fund that will be able to continue providing financial support for Black students looking to pursue an MBA at the Rotman school. 

The desire to make a difference

An MBA degree opens doors and offers a lot more benefits than an undergraduate degree. Panchalingam noticed that pursuing an MBA gave him access to opportunities that he did not know about before he began his degree. “There were gaps in the opportunities that I had or had knowledge [about], and the MBA really helped open that,” he said in an interview with The Varsity

According to Harvard Business Review, those who graduate from top MBA programs are more likely to achieve leadership positions, and they earn a yearly salary that is approximately $20,000 more than those who only have an undergraduate business degree. 

Panchalingam and Habib noticed that there was a lack of Black representation in their Morning and Evening MBA program, which offers the same degree as U of T’s regular two-year program but is extended to three years to accommodate students’ busy schedules. 

The pair decided this was an issue they wanted to help solve. To start this initiative, they collaborated with Students Against Anti-Black Racism, a Rotman group formed in September 2020. The group was created in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in response, when many issues facing Black communities were being brought to light everywhere, including at U of T.

In a world where lack of representation is an ongoing issue, students like Habib and Panchalingam saw that systemic racism put up additional barriers for Black students. “The fact is, there are people who work hard who can’t get to this point because of systematic barriers. We want to help eliminate some of those [systemic] barriers and one of the big ones is financial barriers,” said Habib in an interview with The Varsity. A 2016 Statistics Canada survey reported that Black youth were more likely than their non-Black counterparts to be living in economically disadvantaged families. 

Fundraising efforts

The goal of this scholarship is to aid Black students who have the skills and credentials to pursue an MBA but are facing systemic roadblocks. “It’s to help people who can’t otherwise be here, but they could if we were just going on skill level,” Habib said. “There [are] people out there who are talented enough but can’t be here because of financial reasons.” Currently, less than 2.5 per cent of students in the Morning and Evening MBA program are Black.

To successfully launch this scholarship, Habib and Panchalingam needed to raise at least $50,000. With the support of their community, politicians, teachers and well-known American R&B singer Montell Jordan, they’ve nearly accumulated enough to reach their start-up goal. 

Still, fundraising this amount is only the very first step to achieving their goal. The $50,000 is to be invested in a fund and the interest payments will support the recipients of the scholarships. This scholarship will be a long-term project that will always need donations. 

Fighting for representation

A Statistics Canada study based on census data from 2006–2016 looked into young Black Canadians and their integration within the labour and education market. It was discovered that Black youth were less likely than non-Black youth to obtain a university degree. Young Black women were more likely to achieve a university degree compared to young Black men, but compared to women of other races, Black young women were less likely to achieve a university degree. The study surveyed Black girls between the ages of 13–17 years in 2006 and found that 34 per cent of them had a university degree 10 years later, compared to 41 per cent of girls from other backgrounds.

When Black students are unable to pursue a higher education, the lack of representation is then translated to the workforce, especially within higher ranking positions. A study done by Ryerson University analyzed the diversity of companies across major Canadian cities and reported that Black people only made up 0.79 per cent of these companies’ board members. 

Habib, Panchalingam, and their peers in the Students Against Anti-Black Racism group believe that fighting for representation is a lifelong journey to make diversity the norm in workplaces. “Privilege doesn’t necessarily feel like anything. Lack of privilege feels like something.” Habib told The Varsity.

Habib believes that, as future leaders, today’s youth need to be the agents of change. Sometimes, that change starts with getting marginalized communities access to the education they need and deserve. As Habib said, “We can’t wait for other people to do it — we are the other people.”