YOUNG LEADERS ON SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT
Nicholas Toronga, a MasterCard Foundation Scholar from Zimbabwe, is a management student at McGill. Photo: Owen Egan
Nicholas Toronga leapt into the air when the result was announced at McGill’s Dobson Cup.
The business startup he pitched at the popular annual student competition won second place in its category in March – and $7,000 in seed funding.
“I didn’t care about people’s reaction, I was just so excited,” says Toronga, a first-year management student from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
Toronga and a friend from Zimbabwe came up with the idea for FamKeepa. It’s a proposed web-based service that would allow migrants to buy goods and services for relatives back home through gift cards with partner stores, sparing them the time and expense of sending money abroad.
“They’ll pay a small fee and the retailers will also pay us commission based on the service that we generate because we are opening up a market that they did not serve,” he explains.
Toronga came to Montreal last August as one of 91 students from sub-Saharan Africa who will study at McGill over a 10-year period as part of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program. The first cohort of MCF Scholars, who arrived in 2013, began graduating this spring.
The MasterCard Foundation, the private Toronto-based foundation that launched the $700 million scholars program in 2012, has a global network of education partners that includes four Canadian universities – McGill, Queen’s University, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia.
The program provides comprehensive scholarships for talented students who have impressive track records of service and leadership in their schools and communities and who would not otherwise have the opportunity to obtain a world-class university education. Students accepted into the program are also committed to giving back to their communities after graduation.
The head of the MasterCard Foundation, Reeta Roy, received an honorary doctorate at McGill’s spring convocation and spoke of this commitment at a luncheon held in honour of the scholars.
“The key value of the program is your leadership, and the importance of giving back,” said Roy. “You are young leaders on a special assignment – to transform your home countries and the world.”
Fabrice Labeau, Associate Dean (Faculty Affairs) in the Faculty of Engineering, is also the lead faculty mentor for the program at McGill. “Everybody who is working on this project finds it’s such a rewarding thing to interact with these incredibly brilliant students,” he said.
One of the scholars was a principal at a school for girls that he founded. He felt that in his area there weren’t enough opportunities for them to be educated, says Labeau.
“We’re talking about a guy, I think he’s 23.”
Many are engaged in formalized activities, while some are involved in local associations helping people in their community before they come to McGill, he adds.
“That’s what the program is about, to make sure that the leaders of tomorrow are trained through the best possible program.”
Members of the first cohort of McGill’s MasterCard Scholars. From left: Fauziat Serunjogi, Quinter Faith, Kathyrn Mwathe, Njeri Muguthi, Ignace Nikwivuze and Betty Opiyo. Photo: Christinne Muschi
Toronga has been involved in a few educational projects in Zimbabwe, including helping teach people basic entrepreneurial skills. With the same friend with whom he developed FamKeepa, he also launched a non-profit tutoring service for disadvantaged students that still operates back home.
He and his friend, Tafara Makaza, who attends Williams College in Massachusetts, hope to build FamKeepa into a business. A venture capitalist and Williams College alumnus is interested in their idea and has invited them this summer to an incubator program affiliated with the college, Toronga says.
“They gave us some funding and they’ll help us seek more funding because they really want to see us trying this startup. So we’re really excited.”
In addition to McGill, Toronga says he was also accepted at the University of California, Berkeley and Michigan State in the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, as well as at Cornell.
“I really love Montreal,” he says, his face lighting up with a smile, “so I just chose to come to McGill.”
He checked rankings – “Montreal is one of the best cities for students” – and looked into McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management.
“I was fascinated by Desautels, the fact that it’s like a separate business school.”
Overall, how has his experience been so far?
“It’s great,” he says, praising the foundation and McGill.
As for Montreal, he likes the city’s diversity.
“You see every culture is represented here and it’s something which is very cool. And it’s dynamic, there are a lot of activities that you can do, climbing to Mount Royal, enjoying different types of food.”
The snow was gone in late April when Toronga talked about his first year at McGill and the initial jolt from winter.
“The first days were terrible…at first I hated the snow, then it changed, I started loving the snow and hating the ice. The ice was the worst,” he laughs.
The scholars, most of whom arrive at the end of August, are “always surprised at how much time we spend talking about the weather around here,” Labeau says.
“The adjustment to the winter is always difficult for most of them.”
The scholars are a tightly knit group and support each other, Toronga says.
The first-year scholars are paired up in twos with two other McGill students who offer tips and guidance about university life. “Peer mentors are like friends. It’s really cool,” Toronga says.
Each scholar is assigned a faculty mentor, described as an “academic elder”.
“The idea being that we also want to humanize the role of professors,” says Labeau, who currently mentors four scholars in the Engineering faculty.
“Other cultures than North American have a completely different perspective of what a professor is and there is clearly a very strict wall between the students and the professors,” says Labeau, a native of Belgium.
In North America, it’s a much more friendly relationship between the two “and the professors are available and reachable and the office hours are serious office hours. You actually talk to the students, which is not the case in a lot of cultures.”
One of the nicest things about McGill is the diversity of its undergraduate population, says Labeau. Thanks to the program and the scholarships associated with it, McGill receives top students from places where it typically doesn’t receive many students from, he says of sub-Saharan Africa.
“And they’re bringing that new dimension, different perspective. Because of their leadership kind of profile when they’re selected to come, they’re engaged in their community.”
That involvement extends to McGill.
“They’re out there, they’re in clubs, they’re in local charities, they’re active in the community, so not only are they there with their own perspective on life, but they’re actually sharing it,” Labeau says.
Toronga says they meet some people who have “no clue about Africa” and overlook its diversity.
“There are a lot of things that are happening in various countries. So I think the diversity is something that is valuable, that they can also see ‘oh these people are from Africa, but… what we don’t see on TV or what is usually published on social media,’” he says.
“Most of the time we form such strong connections,” he adds. “You see some people, they’re getting some knowledge about us and we’re also getting some knowledge about them … we end up having a mutual understanding.”