Building social bridges

International Development Studies grad works to bridge gaps at home and abroad

Deciding what career path to pursue is no easy task. For some, it takes years of exploring university program options, or taking time off to reflect on goals and dreams. For others, it comes from finding inspiration through personal experiences.

For Celine Thomas (BA’17), the early seeds that inspired her career took root as she was growing up in Ottawa. Her parents instilled in her a strong set of values, including empathy, humility, a sturdy work ethic, and the importance of giving back to your community. Those values – along with her interests in geography, sociology and history – led her to major in International Development Studies at McGill.

While she was working toward her degree, more inspiration came from her father’s experiences as a doctor in a northern Ontario village. After moving there from Ottawa, he shared stories about Indigenous youth patients and the socio-economic challenges that many of them struggled with. Those stories led Thomas to feel that development studies – which explore social, political, and economic factors that enable societies to develop their full potential – could be applied within Canada and other industrialized countries, as well as in the developing world. “Every country has work to do,” she says.

Making a difference

For her final research seminar at McGill, Thomas’s supervisor was Kim Samuel, then a Professor of Practice at the Institute for the Study of International Development. Samuel is also Founder of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, a non-profit organization that seeks to overcome social isolation within vulnerable communities in Canada and abroad. The Centre’s research, advocacy and programming focuses on finding ways to build a sense of belonging for groups such as refugees, people with intellectual disabilities, older people, and Indigenous communities. During the summer after her graduation, Thomas won a fellowship at the Centre to study mental health policies and programs in Canada.

That same summer, Thomas also got the opportunity to spend a month running a summer literacy camp for Indigenous children in Mistissini, a Cree community in the James Bay region of northern Quebec. Most of the camp counselors were Cree. They helped her understand the challenges they faced as young people who wanted access to higher education: high teacher turnover, for example, and a lack of variety in high school courses, some of which are prerequisites for certain post-secondary programs. Thomas identified gaps – such as culturally appropriate social and mental support, especially for youth leaving their community for the first time – and explored ways in which she could help by being a student advisor or liaison between universities and the Cree education system. The experience solidified her desire to pursue a career aimed at assisting Indigenous youth in Canada. “I learned that I could be an effective ally and make a difference right here in my own country.”

Samuel, impressed by Thomas’s work and her personal qualities, hired her as the Centre’s Strategic Initiatives Coordinator, based in Montreal. Her primary responsibility is now to oversee and support the Centre’s network of Fellows – most of them recent university graduates.

She works out of a shared office space in the city’s Mile End neighbourhood, keeping in touch with the Fellows across the country, who this year have carried out research on issues ranging from incarceration of Indigenous youth and pathways to restorative justice, to the mental-health challenges faced by newly resettled refugees. In some cases, she has also helped conduct research with Indigenous communities.

‘An inspirational advocate’

“Celine is an inspirational advocate, bridge-builder and visionary, working tirelessly to build the Social Connectedness Fellowship Program,” Samuel says. “As well, she conducts global outreach with partners including Human Rights Watch, Special Olympics International, TakingITGlobal, and Partners in Health.” Thomas is also one of two lead researchers on a book that Samuel is writing.

Thomas was heavily involved in a number of student associations and clubs at McGill. She says those experiences helped her develop skills that have proved useful in her work. Among other roles, she served as VP Outreach at the McGill Women in Leadership Students Association and Director of Internal Affairs and Marketing at the McGill branch of AIESEC, an international youth organization. Through AIESEC, she also spent six weeks in Vietnam working with local students.

“Having the exposure to different networks and organizations through campus chapters was really helpful,” she says. “Working with people from outside my program was interesting, and broadened my horizons.”

What’s next for Thomas?

“Given the opportunities I’ve had with the Samuel Centre to work with Indigenous communities, I feel as though it’s an important issue for me personally, and for Canada moving forward in terms of what we see as progress and development,” she says. “I would love to lend a hand and use my knowledge and expertise to help support equitable outcomes and access for Indigenous youth, primarily in post-secondary institutions.”