February is Black History Month.
While it’s important to celebrate Black history and excellence every day, this month is an opportunity for focused reflection and recognition of Black history and achievement, and the many contributions of Black individuals in B.C. and across Canada.
In honour of Black History Month, the University of British Columbia is celebrating the programs and initiatives that support the university’s Black community members. We asked the individuals leading three of these programs to share more about their work and what Black History Month means to them.
The Black Male Initiative
In September, the Vice-President, Students, portfolio launched the Black Male Initiative, a pilot program that is providing institutional and community support for Black male students at UBC. The program provides Black male students with a safe space to network, socialize, have conversations about their lived experiences, and receive peer and mentor support to navigate university life.
Program coordinator Willie Moss, who ran similar programs in the past in the United States, says he brought this program to UBC to help support Black male students who face unique challenges at university. Moss believes the program is the first of its kind in Canada.
“Some Black male students are usually first-generation students who carry the extra burden of needing to graduate and succeed in university for themselves, their family and their community,” says Moss. “They can experience social isolation, imposter syndrome and face issues like microaggressions, and struggle to have conversations about their experience. This program normalizes their experiences and helps provide a layer of validation for them to succeed in university.”
Gabriel Comla, a second-year civil engineering student, says the program has been helpful for him to feel a sense of community after moving to Canada from Nigeria.
“I had difficulty figuring things out when I first arrived to UBC and Canada because of the culture shock,” says Comla. “Attending the program really helped my mental health and personal development because it reminds me of home and I can learn from others in a safe space.”
Mikky Atsér, a third-year PhD student, says that before this program existed, he struggled to find community beyond his research and work.
“Although I struggled to find a community, it didn’t mean that I didn’t survive in UBC or academia,” says Atsér. “The goal, however, is to not just survive, but thrive. Initiatives such as the Black Male Initiative create a sense of community amongst Black men that is crucial. So, having this program and seeing other Black people makes it easier to thrive on campus.”
As UBC honours Black History Month, Moss is also reflecting on what this month means to him.
“To me, Black History Month is every day,” says Moss. “I grew up understanding that I stand on the shoulders of people who are giants, people who went before me and who created a path for me to be here. Their contributions are not to be ignored.”
Students interested in joining the Black Male Initiative can find more information here.
Beyond Tomorrow Scholars Program
“Transformative.” That’s how Aida Mwanzia describes UBC’s Beyond Tomorrow Scholars Program and her journey managing it.
In 2021, the Vice-President, Students, portfolio launched the Beyond Tomorrow Scholars Program, a first-of-its-kind initiative in Canada. The program provides scholarships and integrated institutional supports to help provide a pathway to success for Black Canadian students at UBC Vancouver and UBC Okanagan.
Students can access renewable awards of up to $80,000, as well as one-on-one advising support, and events including financial wellbeing workshops and leadership retreats.
“Through this program, we center the needs of Black students at UBC, fostering a supportive environment where they can focus on their self-development and growth,” says Mwanzia.
Since it launched, the program has already grown from 13 to 43 scholars. The first cohort will graduate in 2025. By then, Mwanzia says she hopes to create a network of engaged alumni who inspire those who come after them in their academic, personal and leadership journey at and beyond UBC.
Black Student MD Admissions Pathway
Last year, UBC’s faculty of medicine launched the Black Student MD Admissions Pathway to help address the underrepresentation of Black physicians in British Columbia. The first cohort of successful applicants will enter the MD program in August 2023.
Through this pathway, applicants have the opportunity to apply and, as part of the admissions process, have their application essay reviewed by a sub-committee comprised mainly of Black stakeholders from the B.C. medical community. Applicants still need to meet all the academic and non-academic requirements of the program.
The goal is to remove barriers that hinder the professional and academic success of Black students, creating a community within and beyond UBC where Black MD students can see representation that reflects them.
“This pathway also helps to ensure medical education tackles racism and discrimination from the institutional to the national healthcare level,” says Donneil McNab, manager of Black Student Initiatives.
“As one of the top schools in Canada, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are educating, developing and mentoring diverse future health-care practitioners who are reflective of the province and the country,” says Dr. Shahin Shirzad, assistant dean, admissions for the MD Undergraduate Program.
For McNab and Shirzad, Black History Month is an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of Black individuals to society.
“Personally, Black History Month is a time of reflection to learn how I can do more,” says McNab. “It’s also an opportunity for me to control the narrative of Black folks, especially in sharing and celebrating Black excellence.”
Dr. Shirzad added that the month is also an opportunity to celebrate diversity.
“It’s like a garden,” he says. “If you entered a garden and there was only one type of tree or one type of flower, you would not be able to appreciate the richness of that garden. When there is diversity of flowers and trees, it brings beauty and joy to our experience.”