Student Stories

International Studies graduate builds opportunities for those following in her footsteps

October 23, 2020

Although Ayaan Ismail is graduating this fall, the International Studies student’s efforts to uplift and support her peers will have lasting impact on the SFU community.

Ayaan came from Kenya to study at SFU in 2016, as part of the World University Services of Canada (WUSC)’s Student Refugee Program. The scholarship program is highly competitive and supports Refugee students in continuing with their post-secondary education.

Ayaan admits that her main focus upon arrival was simply adjusting to life in Vancouver and the new learning environment at a Canadian university. She tried courses in International Studies due to her interest in international relations.

Ayaan’s interest in International Studies was furthered by the opportunity to take classes focusing on the African continent and its politics. In particular, she praises instructor Geetanjali Gill, who she describes as “an engaged professor who went out of her way to support students as they needed”.

“When studying forced migration, Geetanjali was one of the first professors I had who really centred voices of folks with refugee experience in the course materials,” Ayaan says.

Ayaan’s connection to issues surrounding forced migration is personal, stemming from her lived experiences. She proudly describes herself as a young Black African Refugee woman, with a background deeply rooted in community-centred practices and radical community care. Ayaan’s perspective is inspired and informed by radical Black African feminism that applies decolonial, anti-racist and intersectional frameworks.

At SFU, Ayaan got involved with giving back to WUSC by joining the organization’s local committee at SFU, which is student run with support from International Student Services. As part of WUSC, all SFU student fees contain a small levy that allows a refugee student to attend the university. The levy not only contributes to the students’ tuition but helps them to access resettlement services.

“I really wish this was a program more SFU students knew about”, says Ayaan. “It changes a lot of people’s lives.”

Ayaan was part of a campaign this past spring that advocated for an increase the student levy from $2.50 to $5.00 per semester. To gain support for the increase she made classroom presentations, visited lectures to promote the positive impact of the Student Refugee Program and urged students to vote yes in the election referendum. The proposed increase passed with widespread support.

Ayaan also worked with the African Students Association to not only include, but centre the experiences and expertise of Black students across campus.

“I really value community involvement and wanted to create a sense of community for refugee students,” says Ayaan. To that end, she volunteered with local resettlement organizations, such as ISSofBC and MOSAIC, which help newcomers to Vancouver with the many challenges of resettlement.

In addition to these accomplishments, Ayaan led the planning of the first academic Afrocentrism Conference in British Columbia in collaboration with students from SFU and UBC. The conference, which took two years to develop, was born out of frustration, as Ayaan and a group of her peers sought more meaningful Black representation in the academic sphere. The conference featured predominantly Black African speakers and celebrated African culture and Black scholarship.

“It was incredibly tough,” Ayaan says. “We were a group of Black undergraduate students. Many people didn’t take us seriously, nobody thought we could actually do it… until we did.”

Ayaan will continue her work centering and uplifting Black African voices this fall, as she begins graduate studies in the Migration and Diaspora Studies program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Given that volunteering and community involvement played such a key role in her own university experience, Ayaan advises undergraduate students to seek out opportunities and connect with others.

“University is not just about academics,” she says. “It’s a time to not only discover your passions but also get involved and put them into action.”