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Faculty of Science

First Indigenous and Black Graduate scholarship established for SFU biology graduate students

July 07, 2021
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By Diane Mar-Nicolle

Grassroots activism has been a trademark of SFU since its inception in the turbulent 60’s, and a group of graduate students are carrying on the tradition with the establishment of a student-initiated Indigenous and Black scholarship for graduate students in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Ranah Chavoshi, an MSc candidate in biology says that the scholarship was the brain child of her department’s Graduate Student Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, of which she is a member.

Formed in 2019, the committee is comprised of diverse students, including People of Colour, those who identify as LGBTQ2S+, people with disabilities, and gender diverse and non-binary individuals.

“We all have different reasons as to why we are passionate about this project, but as a committee, we want to see systemic change within SFU,” Chavoshi says. “Ultimately, we want to see science be accessible to all.”

One of the committee’s first initiatives acutely exposed the need for immediate change.

“We dove into records and found that over the past eight years, the biology graduate program had only four Indigenous students and two Black students out of a total intake of about 160 graduate students.”

Today’s demographics are even worse.

The department currently has only two self-identified Indigenous students and no Black students at all.

As the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, the committee felt that it was the right time to address systemic barriers at SFU. One direct way to improve access to higher education for under-represented students, they reasoned, was to alleviate financial barriers via a scholarship.

The committee approached the funded Biological Sciences Graduate Caucus who immediately agreed to support the initiative — unanimously voting to donate whatever funds were left unused from their annual budget towards the scholarship.

That seed investment has grown substantially, but the committee is determined to raise enough funds to make this an endowed scholarship with a legacy of funding.

Chavoshi says, “We know that if we can reach the minimum endowment of $30,000, we can give at least one scholarship valued at $1,500 to an Indigenous or Black Student per year. If we can reach $60,000, then half of the scholarship will be endowed and half will provide more immediate and significant funding for one student who will receive a full ride scholarship, approximately, $7,000 for one semester per year.”

The team has volunteered over 500 hours of their time and labour to launch the scholarship.

The Terms of Reference of the scholarship have been designed with consultation and guidance from SFU's Indigenous and Black communities and the adjudication of who receives the scholarship will be overseen by the committee.

Faculty of Science Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Mary Catherine Kropinski says that the committee has proven that grass roots effort can lead to systemic change. “Their persistence and advocacy have paved the way for others to establish donor-funded awards benefiting students belonging to any equity-deserving group."

Chavoshi and the committee also credit the Faculty of Science Advancement team; Cheryl Bosley and Theresa Blancaflor; Biological Sciences Department Chair Isabelle Côté and Kropinski for their assistance.

The committee says the support of these senior leaders was crucial in helping to expedite the initiative and guiding them through the many levels of administration and approvals needed.

Côté stands behind her students’ efforts. “Diversity makes us stronger. It makes us better. That is why I wholeheartedly support this wonderful initiative by our Graduate Student Caucus, which is addressing a major barrier to  inclusion in science.”

Dean of Science Paul Kench says, “The efforts of this committee to raise meaningful funding for a new Indigenous and Black Scholarship for graduate students in Biological Sciences is helping address systemic inequities and letting students know that the University and the community are supporting them.”

SFU Science is raising $30,000 to create a new graduate scholarship for Indigenous and Black students in SFU Science’s Department of Biological Sciences.

An anonymous donor has generously offered to match all donations up to $15,000 —doubling your support and impact!

We invite you to give what you can by clicking here.