Inspired by the Congo
After graduation, Valerie Visani (BA, 2010) moved to Los Angeles to go to law school. She thought she’d end up working there as an entertainment lawyer. Instead, she married the man she loved (also a UTSC alum), which led to a move to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). “Funny how life throws you curveballs,” says Visani. “I said, ‘All right, I guess there goes Hollywood.’”
Visani, who now works as a visiting professor at Université Protestante au Congo, was totally unprepared for the experience. “I had watched movies, but I couldn’t grasp the gravity of it all until I got there.” The Canadian government advises against non-essential travel to the DRC, which is one of the poorest and most dangerous places in the world.
At first, Visani had no idea about the daily struggles of her students. For instance, she would give an assignment at the end of the day and expect it to be turned in the next morning. “But many of my students don’t have access to electricity 80 per cent of the time,” she says, “and can’t afford computers. So they have to save money and book time at an Internet café, then walk miles to get there. That’s not all. They also have to collaborate and arrange groups to travel together for safety.”
Visani has now adjusted her course syllabus. Instead of providing online links for assignments, she photocopies articles for her students.
Recently, Visani participated in TEDxUTSC. “I wanted to share my students’ stories and shed light on how lucky the students are here in Canada,” she says. “I want to tell them this: Just by living here, you have won the geographic lottery.” But she also wants to tell people how committed her students are, and how positive about the future. “When we think of Africa, we think about war and poverty. We don’t often think about the students working hard every day,” she says. “It’s very inspiring.”
Sometimes she thinks about the life she planned to lead. “I started out wanting something totally different. But really, I don’t think I would be as happy if I had stayed in Los Angeles.” These days, when she leaves the DRC, she only thinks about going back.
When you’re surrounded by like-minded people doing cool things, it can really have an impact on you. That’s what Tomash Devenishek (BBA, 2008) says he learned at U of T Scarborough. “When I was in school, one of my buddies sold a start-up company for a few thousand dollars. That was a big deal—it was so inspiring.”
Devenishek credits the university with giving him opportunities he may not have had otherwise, like the chance to take part in the co-op program. “I was at (car-sharing company) AutoShare when it was just starting up,” he says. “It was very exciting to get in at that level, and it was great exposure to the digital marketing world.”
Most in his program went into accounting or finance, but Devenishek’s heart has always been in marketing. “Digital was just beginning to emerge,” he says, “and it has always been a passion of mine. Right from the time when my parents got me my first computer, I’d sit around exploring this wonderful world of technology.”
Now, Devenishek is doing some pretty cool things himself, such as building a platform (cevees.com) where young people can collaborate with peers and career counsellors to create resumés they can easily tailor for different job applications. He’s also running a successful digital agency (peller.tech) that helps other technology start-ups develop their ideas into early-stage applications.
Not everyone can boast their alma mater is one of their clients, but Hamza Khan (BA, 2010) can proudly do so. Khan is the co-founder of Splash Effect, a digital media agency that focuses on marketing for educational organizations. He says he can’t imagine where he’d be without UTSC. He started as a student, worked in Student Life and continues to provide consulting services to the department. But his path, he says, “wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.”
Originally, Khan was on the doctor-lawyer-engineer track, following his immigrant father’s dream. “My father was right, those are honourable careers. But my passion was for the arts— for communication, for storytelling.” Khan met his mentor, motivational speaker Drew Dudley, in a workshop one day. He remembers Dudley saying, “You don’t go to university or college just to get a degree. You go to grow and to discover the person you will be for the rest of your life.” This gave Khan the courage to talk to his father.
“I said, ‘Pop, I love you. I can become a mediocre lawyer at best, or I can have an amazing career in marketing.’ My father understood that,” says Khan, “and the rest is history.”
The wheels are always turning for Khan. A high performer, he’s happiest when something’s going on. In fact, he was a speaker at this year’s TEDxUTSC conference, his first book, Getting More Sh*t Done, is coming out this summer.
A self-taught cook from Toronto, Vijaya Selvaraju (BBA, 2008) is a chip off the old block. “I come from a family of cooks, and ever since I was a kid I was always helping my mom in the kitchen.”
Selvaraju says she was lucky to grow up in Scarborough, where she was surrounded by so many cultures. She’s adventurous, so after school she’d negotiate with her mother to go out for Vietnamese or Thai or Mexican food—whatever cuisine she wanted to explore.
“When Food Network started airing in Canada, I was watching that instead of Power Rangers or the cartoons that my friends liked,” she says with a laugh. Little did Selvaraju know that she’d be on TV herself one day, first on a travel show for kids, then appearing regularly as a food expert on The Marilyn Denis Show and as the Indian cuisine expert on One World Kitchen, a series on Gusto TV.
“When I speak to students, I always tell them that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to go through a rough patch, but to be realistic and ask yourself, ‘Is this something I’m good at? Is this something that I can get better at over time?’” she says. “Finding your calling is what you’re meant to do in life. For all of the things I do right now, it blows my mind that people pay me to do them, these things I love to do!”
After graduation, Peter Zhu (BSc, 2013) interned at the Bank of China (Canada), then worked at Citibank, before landing at Manulife. “I had specialized in applied math, so insurance was well related,” he says. Zhu the engineered a move to Manulife Hong Kong. Since his parents live in Beijing, they’re happy about that. “Hong Kong is actually a better place for me,” says Zhu, “as I can visit them often.”
Zhu says the workday in Hong Kong is “actually very different. There is so much more competition going on with insurance. So, of course, that requires a lot of overtime work.” The day doesn’t automatically start at 9:00 and end at 5:30, as he says it often does in Canada.
What’s coming down the pipeline for Zhu? “In the future, I’ll probably get an MBA degree, then open up my own firm.”