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06.02.20 – Q&A: Student Leadership Award recipients reflect on their time at the Daniels Faculty

This year's Daniels Faculty graduating class had an extraordinary final semester. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic a few weeks before final reviews and critiques, many final-year students had to rearrange their lives just as their studies were at their most intense. Despite all of this, they still managed to excel.

Ahead of today's virtual convocation ceremony, we caught up with five new Daniels graduates who were among the recipients of this year's Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Awards, which recognize students who demonstrate exemplary service and commitment to the university. We spoke with them about their favourite Daniels memories, the impact of the virus, and what they're planning to do next.

Yasmin Al-Samarrai (MArch 2020)

What's your favourite Daniels memory?

The community ​at Daniels really makes it what it is. I have many fond memories of time with friends. When I was a part of GALDSU (the graduate student union), we organized an end-of-year party at Hart House. We all dressed up to the nines, and we had an open bar, ​which is always fun. It was a really wonderful and collective experience — one that gave us the opportunity to celebrate our accomplishments in style.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your last semester?

I'm very lucky, because I actually defended my thesis in December, so I was able to avoid the ways in which COVID altered the experience at Daniels. The pandemic has affected our commencement ceremony, though, which is very disappointing. But we've adapted by going virtual, and hopefully we will have a chance to celebrate once things ease up a little.

What are your post-graduation plans?

I was an intern last summer at RAW Design, here in Toronto. I was lucky enough to get offered a position over the winter, while I was still finishing up my last semester. I travelled in January, before the world collapsed, and started a full-time job as soon as I returned. For now, my adult plans are to pay off my student debt. With that said, we live in a pretty precarious time where architecture and design are crucial tools for change, so I would love to do what I can to be better and effect positive change for our communities.

What advice would you give a starting Daniels student?

My advice would be to not be afraid to approach students of different cohorts, especially in the upper years. We all have experienced the struggles and stress of being first-year students at Daniels. It's important to chat with others, to not feel alone.

Also, really prioritize mental health. Go out with your friends. Sleep. School is important, and obviously we all put our lives on hold for the program — but in order to really make it worthwhile you have got to enjoy yourself, so you're not completely burnt out by the time you graduate.

 

Kevin Nitiema (BA 2020)

What's your favourite Daniels memory?

One of the best memories that I had at Daniels would have been this year, when the whole undergraduate thesis class visited Chicago during the reading week break. We all got to share a 10-hour-long bus ride. It was really, really great to bond with peers outside of an academic setting. We were able to socialize, but also hold academic conversations around what our thesis work would involve. It was an opportunity for us to get closer, but also to experience life in another city that I had never been to.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your last semester?

I was raised in South Africa, so my family is there right now. And a lot of borders are closed, so that's affecting me. My plan was to stay and work in Toronto. I'm adapting those plans on a weekly basis.

What are your post-graduation plans?

I'm taking online courses on topics that are interesting to me. I've also been conducting my own personal research for a couple years now. That has been affected by the global pandemic, but I'm trying to adapt. And I expect to do my master's in maybe a year or two, but probably not in Canada.

What advice would you give a starting Daniels student?

I would really encourage incoming students to not only be involved at Daniels, but also to seek opportunities outside of Daniels. I evolved my own passion for design and technology by connecting with a lot of engineering students throughout my undergrad studies. I worked with them on different projects, both academic and personal. And I've been a don at an Arts and Science residence, and that really helped me reshape my experience as an undergraduate. It really exposed me to different worlds.

 

Cezzane Ilagan (BA 2020)

What's your favourite Daniels memory?

One of the earliest Daniels memories that I find special was my experience as an orientation leader in second year. That was the same year when we finally moved into One Spadina, and that's when it really felt like Daniels was becoming our second home. I really bonded with a few of the students in my group. And I'm excited to say that some of them have been elected to executive positions on AVSSU for the next school year. It feels like I really had an impact on them and their experience at Daniels.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your last semester?

For my thesis, I was originally supposed to create a series of these small-scale models. I couldn't produce those models, so I presented my research, instead. And I also did a small set of collages. They were inspired by Mies van der Rohe and his style of rendering.

What are your post-graduation plans?

I'll be coming back to Daniels for my Master of Architecture. I'm excited to return to my second home and see all the familiar faces that I've missed these last few weeks.

What advice would you give a starting Daniels student?

Get involved in clubs. I think it's a really great way to meet new people and to enrich your university experience. Also, I've found volunteering at Cafe 059 to be a really fun experience. It's a great way to meet and chat with new people, and it's also a great way to get a break from studying.

 

Elspeth Holland (MLA 2020)

What's your favourite Daniels memory?

It might be controversial, but I had an excellent Superstudio experience. I had an amazing group. I was working with three architects, which for me is the biggest strength of the faculty: the cross-disciplinary exposure in courses. We each played our own role in this massive master plan project we were working on. And we became wonderful friends, too.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your last semester?

I've been very impressed with how the landscape architecture department has dealt with COVID. Having my thesis reviews during that time was challenging, but I had a fantastic panel of people who were able to tune in. Some of them were from far away, and I don't know if they would have been able to attend our reviews before COVID, so them being there was a positive result from all this. Also, I saw all kinds of interesting new ways of approaching graphics that were sometimes really beneficial to people's workflows.

What are your post-graduation plans?

This is the challenge of COVID. It's really difficult to answer, because I'm uncertain. I do have a contract with a firm in New York. I'm really excited and hopeful, but of course I may not be looking to go and visit New York for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, I'm still working with Justine Holzman, doing research. I'm part of a team of four other students at Daniels who are doing some work with her this summer.

What advice would you give a starting Daniels student?

One of the things that has helped me, not only at Daniels but just in general, is taking opportunities and getting involved. I think the best thing about Daniels for me was that exposure. The more you can get to know people who have different skills than you, the better off you are.

 

Kian Hosseinnia (BA 2020)

What's your favourite Daniels memory?

I have really good memories of being a TA, especially for Peter Sealy's JAV101 section last year. The experience of working with students — especially first-year students — and trying to communicate some of the things that I have learned, was really nice.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your last semester?

One thing that changed was the scholar-in-residence program that I was involved in. It was supposed to be an experience where students from all over campus would gather and live together for a month and do research, but it ended up being more of an online program through Zoom. The experience ended up being wonderful.

And I had to adjust my work as a TA as a result of the pandemic. Instead of desk crits and pinups, we had to provide feedback to students on Quercus, by looking at their PDF submissions every week. The final review was also very different. Students had to submit a video or audio of them presenting their work and we (Peter Sealy, a guest critic, and myself) had to record our comments and feedback to be sent to students. Overall, I think the shift was successful.

What are your post-graduation plans?

I'm starting graduate school in the fall, at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

What advice would you give a starting Daniels student?

One of the things that helped me a lot was getting involved as much as I could in different ways. I did club work, and student union work. I was in AVSSU for a while. I also worked for the Faculty for a while. All of that really helped me get to know the community. And I'd add that it's valuable for students to get to know their profs. Making the effort to connect with professors will enrich their academic lives at Daniels.