Under ordinary circumstances, the presentation ceremony of McGill’s Equity and Community Building Awards is a happy extension of the awards themselves – a bringing together of McGill students, faculty and staff to celebrate those among us committed to advancing equity and diversity at McGill.
But the COVID-19 pandemic, and the necessary restrictions required to combat it, has turned the present-day circumstances into anything but ordinary. There will be no ceremony this year, no coming together as a community and no congratulatory hugs or handshakes.
But there still are winners to celebrate, efforts to applaud, people to thank and stories to tell.
Crucial work done without fanfare
“Since its inception eight years ago, this award has allowed the University to honour members of our campus community who have done outstanding work in the domains of equity and community-building. So often, this work is done without fanfare or explicit recognition,” said Angela Campbell, Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies) via email. “This award is just one way for McGill to shine a light on and celebrate the efforts of those who champion equity, diversity, inclusion and engagement with communities.”
“It is heartening to see, year after year, the breadth and quality of the projects and initiatives in which our students, faculty and staff are involved, which contribute McGill’s character as a welcoming and inclusive place for all.”
This year, two winners were announced, in the student category and the team category.
Student category: Elena Lin
The seeds of Elena YH Lin’s commitment to issues of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) were sown during her childhood. Born in Taiwan, Lin was raised in Calgary, Alberta.
“Growing up as a female-identifying person of colour in a predominant white community, my very existence was politicized,” she said in an email interview with the Reporter. “I would be – and still am – treated differently based on my physical appearance. The sense of never belonging, of always being the ‘other’ left a deep impression on me. As these experiences built up, so did my feelings of injustice.”
During her time at McGill, in which she has earned an Honours Microbiology & Immunology with a Minor in Art History as an undergraduate and, most recently, a Master’s in Neuroscience, Lin has done her best to level the playing field for others.
“Elena is truly an exceptional person. I don’t think I have ever met another student as intelligent, compassionate, and with the ability to effectively communicate in a wide range of settings and media,” wrote Claire Trottier, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, in her nominating letter for Lin’s Equity and Community Building Award. “I believe that her skills in leadership, communication, art, as well as her initiative, resilience and deep commitment to equity and community engagement make her a deserving recipient of this honour.”
Lin is co-director of the McGill Student Chapter of Scientista, an organization that promotes women and underrepresented groups in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine). Last year, Scientista helped bring speakers to McGill and organized a successful panel-roundtable discussion with professional women in STEM.
More recently, Lin co-founded the SciComm Collective with Danielle Nadin (a MSc student in the Integrated Program in Neuroscience), which combines EDI advocacy with science communication and the arts.
“The overarching objective of the initiative is to make STEM more accessible to everyone. We do so by connecting science with art, engaging researchers in workshops on science communication, and creating resources,” said Lin. “The initiative runs on an EDI-centred mandate – meaning everything from our events to our social media presence, we’re striving to incorporate the perspectives of underrepresented folks. At the end of the day, we want STEM to be more intersectional so that if you want to participate, you feel welcome.”
Asked if it is difficult to combine advocacy and activism with academics, Lin said her out-of-class commitments are an essential part of who she is.
“I see extracurricular engagement as a way to complement class material, learn new things, and address important social issues,” she said. “I’m privileged to have the ability, support and opportunity to partake in them, as many people don’t have the luxury because of jobs and family commitments, or simply can’t for accessibility reasons. Even though academics is a hefty undertaking, participating in extracurricular activities allowed me to develop skills and identities beyond the classroom.”
Team category: Graduate Engineering Equity Committee (GEEC)
“We enthusiastically nominate the Graduate Engineering Equity Committee (GEEC) for the McGill Award for Equity & Community Building,” wrote Engineering professors, Nathalie Tufenkji and Corinne Hoesli in their nomination letter. “The committee is composed of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are raising awareness and championing the cause of EDI within the Faculty of Engineering.”
Since its inception in 2016, GEEC has grown from a graduate student group based in the Department of Chemical Engineering to a faculty-wide team of 15 executive members currently representing all units in Engineering, except for Architecture. However, “the impact and relevance of their work has even extended outside the Faculty, drawing interest and excitement from student groups in the Arts, Education, Science, Medicine, and Nursing programs,” said Tufenkji and Hoesli.
“GEEC’s mandate is to design spaces to explore EDI within the Faculty of Engineering, with a focus on the unique and intersectional perspectives of our graduate and postdoctoral community,” said Stephanie Fernandez, a PhD candidate in Chemical Engineering and managing Director of GEEC. “The graduate and postdoctoral experience can feel quite isolating, so we work to foster a sense of community, promote social awareness, and collaborate with other EDI, wellness, and sustainability groups across campus to provide resources and support.”
In the past year, GEEC organized workshops, discussion groups, de-stress events and networking opportunities. “We launch each academic year with an Annual Equity Orientation, inviting students, staff and faculty members to participate in an introduction to EDI in the context of engineering and academia,” said Fernandez.
GEEC works with many groups on campus dedicated to promoting wellness and equity, including Peer Support Centre, PGSS Equity and Diversity Committee, Local Wellness Advisors, and the McGill Art Hive Initiative. Working closely with the McGill Office of Sustainability, the group has attained sustainability certification for all events since September 2019.
“Forming these collaborations not only helps us deliver a stronger event, but advances one of our long-term goals, which is to build a cohesive and visible network of EDI teams and representatives across McGill,” said Fernandez. “There are many groups like GEEC out there tackling EDI in different faculties and departments, and it would benefit all of us if we could connect and exchange information more often.”
“In carrying out GEEC’s events and projects, we develop confidence in our own leadership, teamwork and compassion,” says Fernandez. “We have a platform to learn more about topics we’re passionate about – especially through collaborative events – and gain skills that will give us an advantage in our future work and life beyond McGill.”
The University hopes to host an event as soon as it is permissible to assemble in-person on campus to celebrate this year’s nominees and recipients of the Award for Equity & Community Building.
This article was originally published in the McGill Reporter.