SFU alumnus Michael Thorburn wins Schwarzman Scholarship

December 09, 2019

By Rebecca Saloustros

Simon Fraser University political science alumnus Michael Thorburn has been chosen as one of 145 Schwarzman scholars to complete a fully funded, one-year master’s degree at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

Thorburn, who graduated from SFU with distinction in 2014, will begin his studies in August 2020.

“It’s a great honour to receive the scholarship,” says Thorburn. “It feels good to methodically work towards something and then to ultimately achieve it.”

More than 4,700 candidates applied for the prestigious scholarship. In addition to a rigorous application process, finalists like Thorburn underwent a panel interview.

Thorburn originally heard about the scholarship and the application process from another former SFU political science student and Schwarzman scholarship recipient, Chardaye Bueckert. She also advised Thorburn as he prepared his application and prepped for the panel interview.

When asked to reflect on how his time at SFU brought him to where he is today, Thorburn cited both positive academic and extracurricular experiences.

“I had a really excellent experience in the Department of Political Science,” he says. “I still to this day remember classes I took with professors Alex Moens, David Laycock and Andrew Heard.”

In addition to learning about U.S. foreign policy, political philosophy and the Canadian constitution, Thorburn became involved in various extracurricular activities, including Model NATO.

“We went to Brussels and were assigned to represent the United States,” he says. “That was one of the first opportunities I had to get on my feet and argue for a position. You can see how that is directly transferrable to a legal career.”

Thorburn’s ambition to become a lawyer began in his second year at SFU. After graduation, he attended Osgoode Hall Law School. He distinguished himself as the managing editor of the Osgoode Hall Law Journal, becoming the first Black managing editor in the journal’s history. Thorburn loved the position, which came with significant challenges and responsibilities.

“I had a team of approximately 50 law students who, in some way, I was directing what they were doing through the entirety of the editorial process, as well as managing relationships with academic contributors,” he says.

And, while Thorburn notes that the legal profession needs to be more diverse, he considers Osgoode to be the most inclusive Canadian law school and values that it strives to reflect the country's diversity in its student body and programming. According to Thorburn, a diverse Canadian society is better served by a diverse Canadian bar.

“There are a lot of lawyers coming out of that system, so the future is really bright,” he says.

Currently, Thorburn is an associate with Cavalluzo LLP, a union-side labour law firm in Toronto.

During and after his year at Tsinghua University, Thorburn plans to study the relationship between technology and labour, specifically advanced technology’s looming impact on workers. He hopes to get a master’s in law and then to return to private practice, with the long-term goal of providing strategic advice to the Canadian government.

“I want to advise government as to how Canada can thrive in a new economy,” Thorburn says.

He advises current SFU students who want to pursue a career in law to maintain a high grade point average, achieve a strong LSAT score, and volunteer. Thorburn also notes that prospective law students would benefit from taking time to consider what they want to achieve from attending  law school–even if that means waiting a couple of years after completing their undergraduate degree to first gain some work experience.

“It’s not enough to attend law school simply to want to be able to call yourself a lawyer,” he says. “The question is, what change do you want to effect within the legal community and throughout broader society? The students who tended to transition best in my class were those that knew what they wanted to achieve when they went into law school. I found that ultimately in law school, as with most things in life, it helps to develop a coherent vision. Coming to that vision requires intentionality and reflection.”