Don't be shy about showing the way, leading the way and being the way, alumnus tells grads

November 23, 2021 by Michael McKinnon - A&S News

“Take risks along the way,” “be a leader" — and “you’ve got this!”

Those are just some of the words of encouragement Arts & Science alumnus Lesra Martin shared in his address to the graduating Class of 2021 at the University of Toronto’s fall convocation. On November 18, more than 5,700 students from 70 countries joined the prestigious U of T alumni family.

“Don't be afraid to take some risks along the way; be brave,” said Martin, who earned his honours bachelor of arts in anthropology as a member of Innis College. Now a lawyer in Kamloops, BC, Martin is perhaps best known for helping bring about the release of imprisoned boxer Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, a story told in the feature film Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington.

Lesra Martin.
“You’ve got this!” Arts & Science alumnus Lesra Martin told graduands in his heartfelt address at Fall Convocation 2021.

“Where you start does not mean that is where you will necessarily end up. The world might seem upside down right now, but you can help make things right side up,” Martin told U of T’s newest alumni.

Martin, who recently helped establish the Lesra Martin Student Changemaker Award to recognize the efforts of students who contribute to Black excellence and inclusion, also urged graduates to be flexible and open, continue educating themselves and to trust that their success at U of T is proof they have what it takes to be changemakers.

“I would entrust this job to no one else other than each and every one of you,” he said in his heartfelt remarks. “Don’t be shy about showing the way, leading the way and being the way as proud ambassadors. Continue to carry the torch loud and proud. And remember, Lesra says — on behalf of the University of Toronto — transformative magic is within and bestowed upon you. You’ve got this!”

Indeed, Arts & Sciences graduates are an impressive group. In the weeks leading up to Fall Convocation, we spoke to a number of graduands and heard stories of students who found “the fun in bioinformatics,” helped other grad students connect during the pandemic and worked to create a more sustainable future for the world.

The day started with a virtual watch party hosted by A&S Dean Melanie Woodin, who shared a special video of messages from across the A&S community congratulating graduands.

“I’m especially honoured to be celebrating this class,” she told staff, faculty, alumni and graduands gathered. “You have really persevered to get to this day and I’m so proud of all of you. There’s always excitement and hope in the air, as our remarkable graduates go forward to make a positive impact in this world.”

Melanie Woodin standing outside Sidney Smith building.
“I’m especially honoured to be celebrating this class,” says Arts & Science Dean Melanie Woodin.

Convocation itself — the main event – was led by University of Toronto President Meric Gertler. In the virtual ceremony, Gertler welcomed the Class of 2021 to the extraordinary family of U of T alumni, which numbers more than 600,000 in over 190 countries around the world.

“I am delighted to salute you, the graduating class of November 2021. That's it, you're done; warmest congratulations,” he said.

“We have no doubt the University of Toronto's high international standing can be attributed to generations of dedicated and very talented faculty and staff members. But we also understand this reputation has been built by our alumni, a group that now includes each and every one of you. So, to the graduating class, let me say thank you. Thank you for your many contributions to the University while you were a student.”

Meric Gertler.
University of Toronto President Meric Gertler.

And while the pandemic put a damper on some celebrations, proud grads like Yoobin Cho found ways to mark this prestigious occasion. Cho watched convocation in her own home, for example, but still dressed up. After watching her name scroll by, she enjoyed a nice dinner and then a video call with her grandparents in Korea.

“To me, graduating from U of T means victory,” says Cho, who earned her honours bachelor of science, neuroscience specialist, with double majors in psychology and physiology as a member of University College.

“I spent most of first year and a bit of second year absolutely lost and afraid, getting bad grades, considering whether I was good enough for my program and wondering if I should drop out.

Yoobin Cho.
Yoobin Cho.

“Things started to look up when I met some amazing U of T profs and other inspiring individuals in the community,” she says. “Their passion for research rubbed off on me, and this powered me to try harder in classes, take care of my mental health, and get some proper sleep. It was a slow and often painful climb uphill, especially during COVID-19. But for how powerful I felt, finally holding that diploma in my hands, it was all worth it!”

For Hayley McKay, who earned her master of science in Cell & Systems Biology, celebrations included grad photos in U of T’s Earth Science Centre greenhouse, where she’d studied plant molecular genetics. She then celebrated with her two biggest supporters (her partner, Graeme, and mom, Kirsten Mogg), prosecco and delicious take-out from a local restaurant.

“For me, graduating from U of T solidifies my love for learning and dedication to science,” she says. “Although the past two years have been incredibly difficult, I’m so lucky to have had the opportunity and support from my family to pursue a graduate degree. In my family, education has always been of utmost importance, and by graduating this fall, I like to think I’ve made them proud. In times of doubt, I would always hear my late grandpa Larry’s words of encouragement, ‘Always do a little bit more than you have to.’”