When she arrived at U of T as an international student from the U.S., new Faculty of Arts & Science grad Laura Gallo spotted a glaring omission among the various groups and associations on campus.
“My friend and I noticed there were a lot of clubs for women in STEM or women in business, and obviously those are very important in their own right, but there wasn’t an association for all self-identifying women on campus,” says Gallo, who is graduating with her bachelor of arts with a double major in peace, conflict and justice studies, and ethics, society and law as a member of New College.
“We wanted to create a place all women on our campus could count on, and have conversations about all sorts of different topics.”
Gallo co-founded the University of Toronto Women’s Association (UTWA) in September 2019 and the organization has since grown to more than 200 members.
The first year of the UTWA saw Gallo and her colleagues pour their efforts into an inaugural conference in February 2020 to support women from all academic backgrounds and build momentum for the new association, but then the pandemic hit.
So last summer, the UTWA created a mentorship program for women in their third and fourth years, pairing them with a professional in whatever field they were interested in. The women met with mentors, one-on-one, once a month for the entire academic year, says Gallo.
The program also included professors from U of T for students considering going on to grad school or even a pursuing a career in academia.
“We knew we really had to change and evolve based on the circumstances we were in. And we were thinking about how students could propel their professional careers forward, especially during COVID-19,” says Gallo.
“The mentorship program seemed like a really great way to fill that gap, and I think it will only continue to grow moving forward.”
Other networking events organized by the association are meant to illustrate how many women can overcome a reluctance to highlight their achievements when they are competing in the job market.
“A lot of women worry about coming across as arrogant. A lot of women also face the challenge of being taken seriously in meeting rooms and board rooms. So we’ve always tried to invite women as guest speakers who have been able to climb the ladder, and can help give others more confidence.”
Gallo admits it took a little time after she came to U of T from her hometown of West Deptford, N.J., to feel a sense of community, but now she considers the University like family.
“Having lived in a small town, I frankly wasn't exposed to a lot,” says Gallo. “I wanted the chance to meet new people in a brand-new place and I knew at U of T, I could study at a globally recognized university while living in one of the most diverse places in the world.”
She’ll start pursuing a master of education degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education this fall, with a focus on learning strategies for supporting students who may be facing barriers to higher education.
“I've been able to witness firsthand the unique challenges each student population faces, whether they are international students or the first in their family to attend university, or if they're women, or if English isn’t their first language,” says Gallo.
“It just led me to wanting to continue to get more involved and have an impact. I think it’s a matter of supporting these students in the most equitable way possible and giving them the tools to succeed.”
Gallo says other students can find their own way to make a difference.
“My advice would be, don’t hesitate if you see something that you want to change, whether it's on campus or in your community. Put your whole heart into it. You’ll find it’s so fulfilling. Even if it only impacts one single student, at the end of the day, it's worth it.”
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