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Human rights advocate Samra Zafar shares her story of overcoming adversity at U of T Next Steps Conference

“The support and community I found at U of T helped save my life.”

Samra Zafar

Samra Zafar spoke at this year’s Next Steps Conference, an intensive one-day career exploration, education and networking event for Arts & Science students, recent graduates and alumni.

University of Toronto alumna Samra Zafar has faced adversity in her life.

As the founder of Brave Beginnings, Zafar – who earned her master’s degree in economics from U of T in 2014, after completing an undergraduate science degree in 2013 – dedicates her time to helping women find mentorship, friendship and support to rebuild their lives after oppression and abuse.

Something Zafar is no stranger to.

As a teenage bride uprooted to a new country after an arranged marriage at 17, Zafar experienced years of physical and emotional abuse after leaving her home in Pakistan.

But she never lost her ambition for education.

During her time at the University of Toronto Mississauga, Zafar became the first mature student and woman of colour to win U of T’s prestigious John H. Moss Scholarship – a $16,650 prize awarded annually to one student across all three U of T campuses for outstanding academic and extracurricular leadership.

Zafar now serves as one of eight U of T Alumni Governors dedicated to helping shape U of T’s educational excellence, research priorities and global impact.

A human rights advocate, author and two-time TEDx speaker, Zafar shared her story of overcoming adversity, achieving academic successes and finding a community as a student at U of T to more than 325 students and recent graduates and 120 alumni volunteers at this year’s Next Steps Conference.

Arts & Science News spoke with Zafar about the Next Steps Conference, an intensive one-day career exploration, education and networking event for Arts & Science students, recent graduates and alumni.


You served as this year’s Next Steps Conference keynote speaker. What were you hoping students and alumni took away from the conference?

The courage and strength to be yourself, find your purpose, and be a voice for change. Even by our little actions, we can create tremendous impact in other people’s lives. Our acts of kindness can save lives. I’ve been on the receiving end of many such acts and everything I do today is to pay it forward. When we show up authentically and speak up for good, we create a much better today and tomorrow.

As a past John H. Moss Scholarship winner, what advice do you have for students and alumni as they start to think about their lives post-graduation?

Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers – you never will. Falling is inevitable, making mistakes is inevitable, but the key to success is to get up, learn your lessons and keep going. Build your own personal cheerleading squad and ask for help. We’re not meant to do it alone. Focus on the next step and keep climbing.

You’re currently in the midst of a term as a U of T Alumni Governor – why did you decide to continue your relationship with U of T?

U of T is my home. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for this amazing institution that helped me grow, learn and become the person I am today. The support and community I found at U of T helped save my life. I’ll always stay connected in whatever capacity I can. The chance to contribute as a governor is a tremendous honour, and helps me live out my purpose of making a difference in people’s lives.

Your upcoming memoir, A Good Wife, is slated for release by HarperCollins Canada in early March – why was it important for you to share your story with the world?

Because my story is not just mine. It’s the story of millions of women and girls around the world who continue to suffer in silence due to lack of support and awareness. I wanted to help them reclaim their voices by raising my voice. There is a lot of complexity around abuse and I hope to spread awareness and raise some questions and ideas about how we can all make a difference.