Congratulations New College graduates!
From a graduating class of 13 in 1963 to a total of 727 graduating students this year, New College has grown quickly over the last few decades. Notably, the Equity Studies program, launched at New College in 1998, was the first of its kind in Canada, and the College continues to be renowned for its focus on equity and social justice studies.
The College System
This year, New College’s outstanding graduating students include a Ghanaian education reform advocate, an American second-generation New College student in ecology and evolutionary biology, and a neuoscience grad who got heavily involved on campus despite his long commute from North York. All three students intend to pursue graduate studies after their convocation.
Vanessa Bart-Plange is on a mission to improve the educational system in her native Ghana. Thanks to the MasterCard Foundation — which provides full scholarships to outstanding students from Sub-Saharan Africa — she said her education at U of T has been excellent and definitely set her on her path.
Bart-Plange, who is graduating with a double major in international relations and political science and a minor in African studies, is interested in education policy and pedagogy.
“Our future as Ghanaians depends on education,” she said. “We need to help students in ways that will allow them to succeed in the global system. I want to create change in the educational system.”
Bart-Plange will put her experiences at New College and U of T to good use as she pursues her political goal, as well as her dream of becoming a university professor. She plans to return to her native Ghana to teach and advocate for change.
“I’m glad I took the step of studying at U of T, even though it was scary,” she said. “I’ve been mentored along the way and the education at U of T has been good.”
New College’s leadership certificate program has also come in handy.
“I come from a culture built on modesty, but I have become more confident about my skills and putting them out there,” she said. “Once I have studied here, I also have social capital that people respect.”
Bart-Plange didn’t expect university to be as challenging as it was. While she came from a different educational system, she had one advantage: “I knew how to speak English.” But writing English well enough to excel in university study is another thing. With the help of the New College Writing Centre, Bart Plange saw a major improvement in her written assignments and she was off and running.
Outside of class, Bart-Plange volunteered as a tutor for immigrant children learning English and served as a logistics volunteer for the 2015 North American Model United Nations conference on campus. She was also a member of the Caribbean Studies and African Studies Writing Group for two and a half years. All the while, her focus has been on succeeding at her studies so she could pursue her dreams and prepare to give back to her nation and her community.
“When I entered high school, I struggled with paying my fees but people chipped in until later when I was awarded a tuition scholarship by the Ghana Ports and Harbors Authority where my dad worked at the time,” she said. “It was a community effort. I want to give back in my own way eventually by sponsoring someone and being a mentor.
“In Ghana, family and community are very important. You are everybody’s child whether you like it or not.”
In the fall, Bart-Plange will take the next steps on the road to becoming a university professor, entering a master’s degree program in development studies at York University.
Madeline Peters’ mother attended New College, so when she decided upon U of T for her undergraduate degree, there was really no question about which college she would choose.
“I knew how large U of T was,” said the Pittsburgh native, “and I wasn’t sure how I would find a community and friends, but the New College community was really nice. There was a good mixture of people and no one had expectations about the type of person you needed to be.”
In fact, the college served as the focus for a number of the extra-curricular activities she took part in as she earned her bachelor of science with a specialist in ecology and evolutionary biology this spring. Peters also received a Cressy Student Leadership Award, a prize that recognizes students for contributions to the community through extra-curricular involvement.
This past year, Peters served as a peer mentor to 20 students in a first-year life sciences learning community at New College, a group designed to help students make a successful transition from high school to university. She and her assistant peer mentor met with the group twice a month and provided programming that she said was “a good mix of fun and practical events. We had a session about goal setting and one with the New College librarian about doing academic research, but we also had a Halloween party and a field trip to the Royal Ontario Museum.”
Peters also co-chaired the New College Orientation Week last fall, the culmination of experiences as a participant, volunteer and member of the executive. She enjoyed it all, but is especially proud of organizing a semi-formal at the ROM that she calls “pretty cool.”
“Running orientation was a great experience,” Peters said. “I was a go-between between the student body and the administration, which can be hard to navigate. It puts you in a position where you have to make decisions and stand by them, so it was a good learning opportunity.”
Research was also an important part of Peters’ life at U of T. She has spent the past three years doing research and, in the process, stumbled across a field that she will be pursuing for her PhD at U of T: computational biology.
“I wasn’t a fan of math in high school, but I got hooked on an idea for a population genetics model, and during my time with Professor Arthur Weis, he encouraged me to go beyond my boundaries and do things I wasn’t confident about.”
Her new passion means she isn’t done with math by a long shot and for her PhD will be studying evolutionary epidemiology under Professor Nicole Mideo in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at U of T. Likewise, she isn’t done with New College either: Peters will be serving as a residence don there this fall.
Simon Spichak is on the path to a career as an academic, and he’s having a good time along the way, both with research and extra-curricular activities.
Like most of the students on U of T’s downtown campus, Spichak commuted to U of T each day. Commuters face particular challenges compared to students who live on campus and Spichak’s experience travelling downtown each day from his home in North York made him an ideal candidate to serve as a New College commuter don.
In this role, Spichak’s priority was making commuters feel as much as part of the college community as the students who lived in New College residence. How did he do it?
“I loved New College,” said Spichak, who is graduating with a bachelor of science specializing in neuroscience. “Friends I made during Orientation Week are still my friends. It’s a really welcoming place. I really felt like part of the college.”
Although he wasn’t a “joiner” in high school, Spichak decided to get involved in student life at U of T, and his participation earned him a Cressy Student Leadership Award for extra-curricular involvement. And the list of organizations in which he participated is almost as long as the roster of courses he took.
As a member of the Human Biology Student Union, he was in charge of the mentoring programs for first- and second-year students and for interested high school students. He also served as the vice-president of academic affairs for the Neuroscience Association for Undergraduate Students, organizing academic workshops and creating a booklet detailing undergraduate research opportunities.
Spichak also became the vice president of operations for Suit U, a not-for-profit group that canvasses businesspeople for donations of used suits and ties and re-sells them inexpensively to students through sales events at Hart House, with the proceeds going to a charity for at-risk youth.
“I loved the organized chaos of getting everything done and having things pop up at the last minute that you had to solve,” Spichak said of the sales days.
These qualities are also what make research appealing to Spichak, and he has been involved in research projects since his first year.
“I sent emails to professors until someone said yes,” Spichak said. “It gets easier from there.”
He enrolled in a neuroscience independent research course this past year, as well as the capstone research course offered by the biomedical engineering program — “for fun.” This summer, he has a research job at Toronto Western Hospital exploring stem cells and spinal cord regeneration.
In the fall, Spichak will begin pursuing a PhD in neuroscience focusing on the way gut bacteria affect the brain.
“I’m really interested in this topic, but you never know what will pop up,” Spichak said.
Whatever does pop up, he’s more than prepared to handle it.
Fun Fact: Architects Fairfield & Dubois, who designed New College, were asked to create a “curvilinear form.” They proposed what is now known as the “New College Swerve” — a fluid and head-turning architectural landmark that is an iconic part of the the St. George campus.
Mascot is Goliath the Gnu.
Notable alumni include: U of T astrophysicist and cosmologist J. Richard Bond; Canadian historian, author and dub poet Afua Cooper; Business leader and venture capital reality TV-star Robert Herjavec; and Culinary expert and food personality Bonnie Stern.
Congratulations to the 727 students graduating today!