A graduate in biology and environmental science, Habon Ali delivered her valedictorian speech to fellow graduates, faculty, friends, and family in June via the UTM Class of 2020 Online Celebration streamed live on YouTube.Today, she is involved in multiple endeavors following the completion of her degree. For our first issue, The Medium had the pleasure of interviewing Ali and discussing her valedictorian speech, why she chose to study at UTM, her favourite memories at UTM, tips for current students, and her plans for the future.

When asked what it’s like to be valedictorian for her class, Ali describes the feeling as surreal. “It’s an absolute privilege to be valedictorian [and] to give some of my thoughts and words to students during a year we could’ve never imagined,” said Ali. This year, Ali presented her speech in a studio surrounded by videographers and staff while abiding social distancing measures in a safe environment. Her speech can be found on UTM’s YouTube account.

Ali graduated UTM with a Bachelor of Science degree. During the interview, Ali revealed that she chose UTM to complete her undergraduate studies because she could study from home, spend more time with her family, and spare financial difficulties. “I chose UTM because [it] gave me more of a close-knit vibe,” she added.

The 2020 valedictorian comes from a large family. She grew up with three brothers and three sisters in a Toronto neighbourhood known as Rexdale. She describes the area as a low-income community where anti-black racism is prevalent in schools, districts, and work environments. Growing up in this community allowed Ali to become aware of thedisproportionate societal privileges and how it impacts people’s lives. “It’s always pushed me to think and question how we can build a better world—a world where everybody can live [equally].” 

She further described how her community played a part in her interest in health equity and led her to volunteer with Toronto Public Health, where she worked with youths on making healthy choices and advocating for equal health. “It’s something I want to continue for the rest of my life,” said Ali. 

After completing a summer internship this year, Ali says that she will continue to work at the MaRS Discovery District for the year in a part-time position. Her team, Opportunity for All Youth, works to observe youth and employment across Canada and strives to remove systemic barriers for NEET youth, a category of youth that lack employment, education, or training opportunities. 

“For me, this is really important because it’s something I saw [in] a lot of young people in my community growing up. [They] didn’t have access to employment for various reasons, whether it be poverty or racism or other systemic actors that come into place.” At MaRS, Ali and her team will continue to engage youths in the community looking to improve their skills and knowledge.

Passionate about equality and change for youths,  Ali describes her primary purpose and ambition as being an advocator for equal health and a supporter of community initiatives. 

“My ultimate goal is to work with the community, whether it is at a local level or a national level in Canada,” said Ali. “To work toward health equity and creating better access to healthcare for racialized and immigrant communities.” Ali will continue to research ways that Canada’s healthcare system can be more effective as well as how it can centre around citizens’ livelihood and health.

This summer, Ali also finished her term in the Prime Minister’s Youth Council, where she participated in meetings with the prime minister to discuss how to support youth and advocate for change.

Moreover, Ali was also recently appointed to the board of Apathy is Boring, a non-partisan, charitable organization that supports and educates youth to be active and contributing citizens in Canada’s democracy. “It’s really important to me that I support and join organizations that work to build up the capacity of youth for my community,” said Ali. 

In 10 years, Ali hopes to have a career that not only benefits herself but the community as well. “I aspire to be working in community building, specifically around health,” Ali stated that this is especially important in challenging times such as these where the lack of social support, policies, programs, and attention has created social disparities. Ali reflected on how to remove these discrepancies between society and health, stating, “how do we build healthy communities where everybody can live, [can be] taken care of, and not be impacted by [any existing] widening disparities.”

Looking back on some of her favourite memories, Ali expressed her joy in meeting different types of people at UTM, including lifelong friends and several professors. “I’ve also enjoyed doing research on campus,” said Ali. She touched on her experience working with Dr. Fiona Rawle, a professor in the biology department and the associate dean, who she describes as a “wonderful ally [and] a wonderful professor who has supported my undergraduate experience.” 

Ali also took a course and completed research with an assistant professor in the geology department, Dr. Vincent Kuuire, focusing on health care systems around the world. Ali revealed this experience as playing a significant role in her future endeavors. “I think this sparked my interest in global health,” said Ali. 

In addition to focusing on academics and extra-curricular activities, Ali enjoys spending time with family and friends, along with other hobbies. “I read a lot of autobiographies – I think people’s stories and journeys are really interesting.” She describes herself as curious, empathetic, and driven.

When asked about any tips she would give for current students, Ali emphasized how getting involved, whether on-campus or off-campus, in organizations of interest, is essential. While it may be easy for students to become consumed in academics, this should not limit their undergraduate experience. Moreover, when people become involved in communities, space is created in societies for voices to be heard. “You always have something of importance to give, and our perspectives are really important,” Ali stressed that students do not have to graduate to have a voice in society. It is up to individuals to become involved in their communities for the betterment of society and equality.  

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