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Making the world a better place

Meet five Concordians doing good in the world
February 11, 2016
By Sue Montgomery

Most graduates went to university with ambition — perhaps it was to one day invent something, cure a disease or run a business. Some, often driven in their past or crisis in their native country, set out to make the world a better place. Grateful for having overcome their own challenges in life, they decide to pay it forward, often earning less money than classmates who have chosen other paths.

Concordia University Magazine spoke to five alumni making a difference in the world, asking them what drives their philanthropic ambitions and what they hope to achieve. Their answers vary but they all have the same goal: to improve the lives of those less advantaged than themselves. And they all report getting more back than they give, simply through doing something that makes a difference, no matter how small.

Vietnamese refugee to community leader

Thi Be Nguyen Thi Be Nguyen and her family were welcoming to Canada from Vietnam in 1979. She has since dedicated herself to giving back to the community.

In 1979 Thi Be Nguyen, BComm (mktg.) 98, was among the 60,000 Southeast Asian boat people who arrived in Canada, refugees forced to flee their homes in the aftermath following the end of the Vietnam War.

Just shy of her fifth birthday — and the second of three children — the young Nguyen remembers the kindness of Canadians who helped after the family arrived in winter with nothing except a few gold necklaces. She and her sister and brother spent their first summer at the YM-YWHA day camp.

Now the marketing graduate is married, a busy mother of two young children and advisor on public affairs to the National Bank’s president as well as the bank’s ambassador of diversity.

Giving back

In 2014, she created her own foundation, named UniAction, to give back to her native community as well as to the community that offered her rudderless family a new life. “I was lucky to come here and that my parents sacrificed to give me a new life,” says Nguyen.

The non-profit brings together cultural communities to raise money for different charities related to poverty, access to education and better health in communities here and abroad, and advises them on how best to reach their goals.

Over the years, she has supported such organizations as the Vietnamese Boat People Museum, West Island Community Shares, 60 Million Girls Foundation, Free the Children, Children’s Wish Foundation and Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure.

In 2013, the Canadian Senate recognized Nguyen as one of 10 future leaders in the Vietnamese community. She is vice-president of the Young Chinese and Asian Professionals Association, a network that helps develop and promote young leaders from Quebec’s Chinese and Asian communities.

Nguyen has passed on to her children her sense of giving back, which began at Concordia. “We have to sensitize children to it when they’re young,” she says. “They have all they need but we have to teach them that not everyone has that.”

That lesson seems to be sinking in. In 2014, Nguyen’s children held a garage sale and sold all their toys, donating the money raised to the Lakeshore Hospital Foundation, which funds the Montreal West Island hospital where both were born. They also donated their piggy bank savings to help buy 145 Christmas stockings for children throughout Montreal.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the first arrival of boat people in Canada, Nguyen initiated a major project. It included hosting the first Vietnamese History and Culture Discovery Day at Montreal’s Pointe-à-Callière Museum, attended by over 300 people, creating a commemorative and collective art work, and raising $12,000 for handicapped people in Vietnam — an amount of money that will go a long way in her native country, she says. She’s now finalizing a documentary in collaboration with production company Les films de l’Hydre to wrap up the festivities in spring 2016.

One of Canada’s most powerful women

Désirée McGraw Désirée McGraw is president of Pearson College in
Victoria, one of 15 united world colleges around
the globe.

A quick perusal of the résumé of Désirée McGraw, BA (econ.) 93, suggests this is a woman on a tireless mission. Among her accomplishments is being named one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women by the Financial Post in 2014. She was senior policy advisor to former prime minister Paul Martin and executive director, then president, of the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation in Montreal.

It’s appropriate, then, that this woman who considered Jeanne Sauvé — Canada’s first woman governor general — a role model, is now the first woman to head Victoria’s Pearson College in its 40-plus-year history.

McGraw was a go-getter even before arriving at Concordia. At the age of 16, concerned about the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, she took several months off high school with three other teens to travel across Canada promoting global peace and disarmament. One of their stops, coincidentally, was Pearson College. “From a young age, I learned that through hard work, through teamwork, through organization and passion, almost anything is possible,” McGraw told Pearson students after taking on her new role of running the school.

Example for young women

That tour, called SAGE, for Solidarité Anti-Guerre Étudiante, fashioned on Terry Fox’s pioneering cross-country run to raise funds for cancer research, laid the groundwork for McGraw’s life of social activism. Now she feels she has come full circle and can be an example for blossoming young leaders. “If I can be a role model for young women or minorities, people who are under-represented, I’d be honoured to be that person,” says McGraw.

In her fall 2015 opening remarks to new and returning students at Pearson — one of 15 United World Colleges — McGraw issued a call to action. In the wake of the tabling of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she asked the entire Pearson community — staff, faculty and students, past and present — to consider what they could contribute to the reconciliation with Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.

“Now that the report has exposed the truth, the commission challenges the country to participate in reconciliation,” she told the students. “At Pearson, an international residential school founded on promoting peace and diversity, I believe we have a special responsibility — because we have the ability to respond to this challenge. The history and reality of residential schools run counter to everything we stand for.”

McGraw has always been deeply concerned about climate change and feels it’s our most pressing problem — she was among a select group of Canadians to complete a training session with former United States vice-president and Nobel laureate Al Gore and went on to co-found his Climate Reality Project in Canada. “I don’t believe in passing the buck to the next generation,” she says. “I need to do my part as a citizen and encourage the next generation to do their part.”

Developing activism in the developing world

Awel Uwihanganye Awel Uwihanganye helped established the Concordia
Volunteer Abroad Program in 2006 and led the
organization until 2013. He now sits its board.
"The idea is that it should be managed and run by
young people.”

Awel Uwihanganye, BA (poli. sci.) 08, immigrated to Canada from Uganda in 2000 and was attracted to Concordia because of the “activist spirit of the students.”

He returned to Uganda in 2006 to establish the Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program (CVAP) after a successful referendum by students to fund the program in 2005. CVAP was founded with fellow Concordian Peter Schiefke, BA (poli. sci.) 07, who was recently elected Liberal MP for Vaudreuil-Soulanges, Que. “We were both very concerned with social issues and at that time there were many humanitarian crises around the world. We were especially concerned with the effects of the war that was ravaging northern Uganda,” Uwihanganye says. “We wanted to do something concrete in helping children and women caught in the midst of conflict. We wanted to make a statement that even students from so far away can make a difference in the lives of many.”

They decided to create a program that would not only give students an opportunity to make a contribution but also give them exposure to the developing world and some of the challenges it still confronts.

CVAP recognized for its accomplishments

The organization has received several awards over the years, including the 2008 Entraide, Paix et Justice award from Forces Avenir and the 2010 YMCAs of Quebec Peace Medal.

There have been about 200 CVAP participants in almost a decade of operation. As part of their mission, after their work in Uganda they travel to other places in East Africa, exposing them to more cultures and other experiences.

Students stay for a few months and work with community organizations, some of which provide healthcare support services and early education to vulnerable children who live in the communities where CVAP operates.

Uwihanganye, who lives in Kampala, Uganda, now sits on the board of CVAP and runs a safari business, Silverback Travel Company.

In 2015, Uwihanganye was named Young Alumnus of the Year by the Concordia University Alumni Association for his dedication to social change, including his ongoing work as co-founder and senior director of LéO Africa Forum, an organization promoting responsible leadership and establishing a strong voice for Africa around the globe. “We use that to build networks around people who are doing interesting and great stuff,” he says.

His goal is to create more opportunities for the burgeoning population of young people in the region — a demographic that is growing by three per cent per year. “It’s a big problem, we risk having instability and conflict in these areas where opportunities aren’t created fast enough,” Uwihanganye says.

He praises Canada, his adoptive home, as being charitable, where people were very kind and hospitable to him. “I don’t think there’s a better time to live in Canada than now,” he says, referring to the latest federal election results. “And Concordia remains a great inspiration to me. It’s a place that nourished me so much; I have a very special relationship with the university and it will remain that way.”

Transforming grief into action

Lauren Small-Pennefather Lauren Small-Pennefather won the 2015 Alumna of the
year awards from the Concordia University Alumni

Lauren Small-Pennefather, BA (sci. & hum. affairs) 95, MA (pub. pol. admin.) 97, has had her share of grief. She lost both parents to cancer — her mother when Small-Pennefather was 21 and her father soon after her only child was born. So while a student at Concordia, and still grieving, she started a cancer education resource for students and gave out her own phone number for anyone needing support. “It was obviously part of my own healing,” says Small-Pennefather. “There were no support groups for people my age.”

Now she dreams of a world devoid of cancer. Small-Pennefather hasn’t missed a Terry Fox run for cancer research in 18 years and four years ago started a local run in her community of Montreal West. So far, they’ve raised $25,000 for the Terry Fox Foundation. “I guess giving back to the community is really a gift to myself because it helps to fill those voids that are there, the collateral damage that’s left over from those losses,” Small-Pennefather says.

Last year she set up a bursary in her parents’ names at Concordia’s School of Community and Public Affairs, where she completed her undergraduate studies. Called the Leona and Sam Small Community Service Award, the $500 bursary will go to a student having financial difficulties and contributing to the community. “It’s a way of thanking the Concordia community for what they gave me, propelling me into what I’ve become,” she says.

Small-Pennefather of course has periods of deep sadness due to her loss but says she made a conscious choice not to pull the blankets over her head. Her schedule is jam-packed, both as a civil servant and volunteer.

Pay it forward

She recently earned a master’s degree in air and space law from McGill University and is senior manager of international relations for the Canadian Space Agency. She speaks weekly to people who have lost a parent to cancer through Hope and Cope, a support group based at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital. She also volunteers at her daughter’s school and founded the Montreal West Diaper Drive. “It’s part of my life, and when things are part of your life, you make room for them,” Small-Pennefather says. “Sometimes I take on too much, but it helps in my own healing process.”

She encourages others to pay it forward, by dropping off a bag of groceries at the local food bank or lending an ear to someone suffering loss. “You can feel loss, despair, sadness, depression when you lose someone, and if you’re able to extend a lifeline to somebody else from your own experience, even if it’s painful, I think that in itself will change the world,” she says.

One of her goals for next year is to climb a mountain in British Columbia named after Terry Fox, a hero whose crossCanada run happened when Small-Pennefather was just 9 and cancer had not yet shaken her world. “I don’t think the world has seen all of Lauren Small-Pennefather yet,” she says. “There’s definitely more to come. I just really want to be a caring Canadian.”

Leader in human rights education

Vincenza Nazzari Vincenza Nazzari says she brings to Equitas a love for education and organization acquired from Concordia's master's program in educational technology.

In 1995, Vincenza Nazzari, Cert (TESL) 80, MA (ed. tech.) 01, was supposed to be on a short-term loan from the federal civil service to Equitas. The Montreal-based organization has been working for almost 50 years to advance equality, social justice and respect for human dignity by teaching people in Canada and overseas about their rights.

When Nazzari arrived at Equitas, it was running just one program — the annual three-week International Human Rights Training Program at John Abbott College in Ste.-Anne-de- Bellevue, Que. And she was a team of one.

Twenty years later, Nazzari is still at the non-profit and, as director of education, oversees a team of eight and leads the design of human rights education programs in Tanzania, Haiti, the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Senegal, Colombia and Canada.

Whether it be a project on religious harmony in Sri Lanka or working with young women in Montreal neighbourhood Côte- des-Neiges, participants in these programs learn about human rights principles and develop the skills that enable them to become change-makers in their communities.

Equitas’s unique activities enable participants to experience what it feels like to be excluded, for example.

A recent independent evaluation confirmed that the ripple effect created by Equitas’s training of human rights educators had reached approximately 1.6 million people in more than 80 countries during a five-year span. Equitas programs in Canada currently reach over 100,000 children and youth in over 30 communities. “I felt like I was doing something infinitely useful and it was also much more gratifying,” says Nazzari of why she never returned to the civil service.

Today, Equitas is solicited by UN organizations for its expertise. The participatory approaches Nazzari brought to Equitas have contributed to a number of awards for the organization, including the Quebec Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse’s Prix des droits et libertés in 2014.

Bringing together people from varied backgrounds and cultures can be a challenge, even if they do work in human rights, yet Nazzari says it comes down to respect. “I think if people can see others as human beings like themselves, they’d have a hard time hurting each other,” she says. “Human rights education enables people to recognize our common humanity, and that’s what makes it so powerful.”

Impact on millions

Equitas executive director Ian Hamilton has this to say about Nazzari: “Her work, in a very quiet and unassuming way, has had an impact on millions of people around the world. More than anyone else, Vincenza is responsible for the quality and success of Equitas’s human rights education programs.”

Since leaving the public service, Nazzari estimates that she has worked directly with more than 2,000 human rights educators from 100 countries. “I had one young woman from the Middle East tell me at a training program, ‘I want to be just like you.’ It really brought home the fact that as an educator, you really have a lot of influence and with that goes a huge responsibility.”

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