Zeytouna Suleiman is one of McGill's first McCall MacBain Scholars (Photo: Owen Egan and Joni Dufour)

On Campus

A pillar for McGill’s third century

The University’s first cohort of McCall MacBain Scholars arrived on campus in September 2021. The ambitious scholarship program aims to train new generations of leaders in a wide variety of disciplines – and to change the lives of talented young people for decades to come.

Story by Patrick McDonagh

January 2022

Among the thousands of students who arrived at McGill last fall, there is a group of 20 who will be remembered for launching an important new era at the University.

They are the first recipients of the McCall MacBain Scholarships for students pursuing master’s degrees or degrees in law or medicine.

John and Marcy McCall MacBain at the 2019 press conference that announced the creation of the McCall MacBain Scholarships.

The scholarships were created with a $200 million gift from John McCall MacBain, BA’80, LLD’14, and Marcy McCall MacBain, announced in 2019. It was the largest gift of its kind ever made in Canada at that point, prompting Quebec premier François Legault to tweet, “WOW!”

The McCall MacBains have a long track record of supporting some of the best regarded scholarship programs in Canada and around the world – including the Rhodes Scholarship Trust.

“Marcy and I are thrilled that the first cohort of scholars has arrived at McGill,” says John McCall MacBain, who recently became McGill’s new chancellor. He recalls benefitting from crucial scholarship support himself as an undergraduate. “I remember what it was like to step foot on campus for the first time as a new McGill student and get to know the beautiful city of Montreal.

“We can’t wait to see them make the most of the opportunities they’ll have as McCall MacBain Scholars at McGill,” says McCall MacBain. “We know they will challenge each other to find new ways to engage meaningfully with their new community and bring about positive change. And of course, they are only the first 20 of many, many future generations of scholars.”

An investment in tomorrow’s leaders

Even though the first 20 students are entering different fields – including law, public health, urban planning, engineering, neuroscience, clinical psychology, pharmacology, bioethics, geography, political science and public policy – they will be seeing a lot of each other during their time at McGill.

Natasha Sawh is the dean of the McCall MacBain Scholarships at McGill. (Photo: Sierra Dae)

The McCall MacBain Scholars, who will all receive full tuition support and a monthly living stipend, will take part in team-oriented case study projects that will see them working together to address real-world problems. Outside their regular courses, they will also participate in special workshops and lectures with an emphasis on developing leadership skills.

The scholars will have access to accomplished mentors through the program. Joanne Liu, MDCM’91, IMHL’14, the former international president of Médecins Sans Frontières, and a professor at McGill’s School of Population and Global Health, will be one of those mentors. Others include Peter MacKinnon, a former president of the University of Saskatchewan, and Nahlah Ayed, the host of CBC Radio’s Ideas.

“This scholarship aims to invest in the lives of its recipients over the long term,” explains Natasha Sawh, BA’02, dean of the McCall MacBain Scholarships at McGill. “So, it includes this full leadership development curriculum that they take in addition to the graduate program.”

A five-day retreat last August in downtown Montreal marked the first chance for the inaugural recipients to meet in person, although they had met online.

“I think a lot of us have already become friends,” says Josh Swain, now pursuing a master’s degree in public health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. “People are planning outings together and there has been a lot of talk about how we might collaborate on future projects. The areas we’re all studying cover such a broad spectrum!”

Josh Swain is a McCall MacBain Scholar
pursuing a master’s degree in public health.

The first call for applicants for the McCall MacBain Scholarships in fall 2020 drew 735 candidates from 55 Canadian postsecondary institutions. And while this first cohort and the upcoming one are limited to Canadian citizens, residents and refugees, 2022 will see the program expand to include international applicants.

The 20 students selected to be McCall MacBain Scholars aren’t the only ones who benefitted from applying to the program. The McCall MacBain Foundation also provides $10,000 awards to national finalists and $5,000 awards to regional finalists, funding a total of 75 scholarships in its first year.

A diversity of backgrounds

While the 20 McCall MacBain Scholars have diverse backgrounds and resumés, they share a capacity for leadership and creativity.

After earning a diploma and working in finance for seven years, Swain, a Winnipeg native and a member of the Manitoba Métis Nation, enrolled at the University of Winnipeg to pursue an undergraduate degree in biology with the intention of ultimately going into a health-related field. He balanced his studies with helping to run the university’s chapter of the Canadian Indigenous Science and Engineering Society.

“The McCall MacBain Scholarship really excites me – having a fully funded graduate program with mentorship and leadership training is incredible,” he says. He identifies the harms of substance addiction and related mental health illnesses that are endemic to many northern Indigenous communities, as propelling his interest in public health.

“Indigenous practitioners are underrepresented in Canadian public health, and there are few people able to bridge the gap with public health agencies or government and Indigenous leadership, so I think I could have a real impact in this community, helping develop public health policies and strategies.”

After doing an undergraduate degree in social work, Zeytouna Suleiman, BSW’20 – one of three McGill graduates to receive the scholarship so far – is shifting her focus to law.

“My social work studies have given me some profound first-hand experiences connecting with people who fall on the margins of society,” she says. Suleiman has worked with victims of domestic violence and homelessness through employment in a women’s shelter, a youth protection agency, and a legal information clinic.

“I was involved in advocating for better situations for these individuals and also getting to understand their circumstances, and this has strengthened my desire to have an impact on their lives, but from a systems-based level through policy,” she explains. “Law is a valuable tool for navigating systems of power and being able to propel social change, so I want it in my toolbox.”

Alexander Julian (AJ) Bimm is working on a master’s degree in urban planning, an interest that was sparked, in part, through his experiences as a middle distance runner on the University of Toronto’s track team, where he served as team captain.

A.J. Bimm is a McCall MacBain Scholar and a master’s student
in urban planning.

“We competed in a lot of different cities around the U.S. and Canada, and one of the first things we would do after arriving in a new city is go for a jog,” he explains. “I loved discovering different neighborhoods with their unique characters.”

While working on his undergraduate degree in sociology and urban studies, he heard firsthand from local residents about the impacts of municipal planning on their lives. He became involved in the Black Futures on Eglinton project that focused on the impact of a light rail transit station being constructed in Toronto’s Little Jamaica community.

“We looked at how planning impacted access to housing and culture, and then engaged the community about some of the things that they’d like to see change. The project brought in a city councillor and eventually turned into something we started seeing at city council, which was fascinating.”

Bimm’s excursions along the streets of Montreal have sparked new insights. “I was blown away by the mixes of different types of housing on the streets, which is super interesting as it opens up more opportunities for diverse households,” he says. “That and the way Montreal uses its green space and landscaping have really stood out for me.”

Recruiting and selecting the Scholars

The diversity of scholarship recipients – from across the country, across disciplines, and representing a wide range of backgrounds – is no accident.

“It was really important to be able to reach students who were not just the usual suspects who apply for scholarships,” notes Sawh. “We wanted applications from people who might not think of themselves as traditional scholarship material, so before selections we focus on how to reach those people” (Swain, for instance, pursued his undergraduate degree as an older student and learned of the scholarship through a centre for Indigenous students at the University of Winnipeg).

Reaching and then assessing a diverse selection of students also requires that the McCall MacBain Foundation ensures that there is diversity on the four-to-five person teams that interview and rank applicants.

“We looked for volunteers who aligned with the values of the scholarship program and ranged in age, gender, profession, and cultural background,” Sawh explains. “We want all these different people reading the same application, because they see different things in each one.”

The applicants submitted written pieces reflecting on their experiences and aspirations, along with their CVs and official transcripts. “The entire process was a really good opportunity for self-reflection,” says Suleiman. “It took longer than all my other applications together, but it forced me to think critically about what I’ve done, and how my lived experiences inform where I want to go.”

Assessing applicants proved to be a demanding experience. Claude Généreux, BEng’85, executive vice-president of Power Corporation and vice-chair of McGill’s Board of Governors, estimates that he had close to 20 meetings with regional and finalist candidates.

“We were looking for people who are not only good academically, but who also showed the ability to put themselves in situations where they could make a difference. The process is structured so you can understand where they’re coming from, what pressures they’ve been under, what opportunities they have had or not had,” he explains.

Given the quality of candidates, the interview committees faced a challenging task.

“Selecting the best candidates was difficult because at the start you have a group of people who are incredibly accomplished and have great potential,” says Cornell Wright, BA’96, executive vice-president with Wittington Investments.

“All of the candidates we met were the full package. And these are high-stakes decisions, because this scholarship can be life changing.” But, notes Wright, “At the end of the day, when you have had lively discussions with students like the applicants for this program, you feel really good about the future. It’s a completely uplifting experience.”

Généreux agrees. “The students who won come from such diverse backgrounds, it’s incredible,” he says. “And after meeting with them I feel very hopeful for our evolving society.”

The impact of the McCall MacBain Scholarships will not be felt by the recipients alone.

“With around 80 students coming in every year, assuming that they take two or three years each in their program, soon McGill could have 200-plus students [on its campuses] supported by the McCall MacBain Foundation,” says Généreux. “The effect this will have over a decade could be transformative for McGill.”

As Principal Suzanne Fortier, BSc’72, PhD’76, has said, “The McCall MacBain Scholarships embody our vision for McGill’s third century: a place where students become future-ready and prepared to contribute to shaping our rapidly changing world.”

“I’m really eager to participate in the program’s activities and develop my leadership skills,” says Suleiman. “And the opportunities for mentorship have blown me away – we get to interact with individuals who are giants in their respective fields! The program instills a sense of responsibility to ensure that we’re using our opportunities not only to benefit ourselves, but to benefit the communities that we’re a part of.”

Says Bimm, “The case-based learning activities presenting us with challenges are a really unique, practical, exciting way to approach leadership development, gain experience and learn new skills. I think we’re all approaching it with a very open mind, really excited for the process and what it may entail.”

Swain notes that the initial August retreat also provided the group with the opportunity to discuss what sort of precedent they want to set for following McCall MacBain Scholars.

“We wanted to collectively agree on what we want to make of our role as the inaugural cohort, setting the stage for what this opportunity could mean not only for us as individuals but also as a group. We’re paving the way for the next cohorts,” he says. “And we have to say a massive thank you to John and Marcy McCall MacBain and their foundation. I know this is going to change my life.”

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