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Student wins scholarship from Canadian Association of Black Journalists

JOURNALISM AWARD: Professor Jules Elder (left) of the joint journalism program congratulates student Thandiwe Vela, winner of a CABJ Scholarship. (Photo by Cyril Cromwell Simmonds of TOportfolio.)

by Felicia Carty

Barack Obama recently made history, becoming arguably the most transformative figure of our time in North America. And although he is admired by many, we don’t necessarily need to look across the border for inspiration -- there are people right here at the University of Toronto Scarborough whose stories and aspirations are also remarkable.

One such student is Thandiwe Vela, 21, who was recently awarded a $1,000 Centennial College Scholarship from the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ), which aims to highlight accomplishments by promising black journalists.

A fourth-year student in the joint journalism program at U of T Scarborough and Centennial College, she accepted one of the four CABJ awards at a ceremony organized by the association in the fall. The event was attended by such media personalities as Andrea Case of CTV and Nneka Elliot of CityPulse 24.

“I absolutely love Obama,” says Vela. “He is a huge inspiration to me, and his presidency is almost like a dream. I’m absolutely ecstatic and I think it’s a huge step in the right direction.”

Vela herself has been making steps in the right direction. Ever since she immigrated to Toronto from Zimbabwe at the age of three speaking only her native Shona language, she has been striving to achieve her goals and has accomplished a great deal in both academics and athletics.

Professor Jules Elder, program coordinator in the journalism program, describes Vela as a “wonderful and hard-working student. She has overcome some big obstacles already in her life and I expect her to go far.”

Sundra Sefa, the student representative for the CABJ, adds that it was easy to support Vela as a worthy recipient for the award because of her commitment to the community, her perseverance, and the strength of her resume.

“Thandiwe has a lot of experience under her belt, and we all agreed that the writing samples she supplied were just amazing,” Sefa says. “As well, it’s a huge accomplishment to go from not speaking English to training to become an expert in the language.”

Vela has been involved in student life, and was appointed to serve on the steering committee for the five joint programs offered by Centennial College and the University of Toronto Scarborough. But such feats are not surprising, considering her resume. She has been interning as a reporter at the Toronto Star since August 2008, and recently had her contract renewed to extend throughout the summer of 2009. She’s currently working in the radio room scanning the airwaves for breaking news throughout Toronto, and she has written several feature stories for the paper. Vela says she hopes to become an editorial columnist one day.

“When she first came to Canada she didn’t speak English, and for her to beat out the competition and get into the Toronto Star as a reporter is a phenomenal achievement and shows her drive and ability,” adds Elder, who also works for OMNI-TV. “She’s also very well rounded and accomplished in athletics, and she shows a real appreciation for those who have supported her in the past.”

“I’m interested in a lot of the things that come under the mandate of the Toronto Star,” Vela says. “Obviously I didn’t just adopt this when I started working there, but I noticed that they have one of the same goals that I do – giving a voice to people that don’t usually have one, getting more diverse ideas out there and making sure everyone is represented --everyone in the community and even everyone in the world. To me, that means exploring issues from what’s going on in Zimbabwe to things happening in the Jane- Finch neighbourhood.”

Such goals are personal to Vela, who says she often struggled with an educational system she feels tried to hold her back. “For people of colour, it’s an unfortunate fact that sometimes people have low expectations of them, including educators,” she says. “On the receiving end, students sometimes take all that in and decide, ‘Okay, I’m not good enough for science. I’m not good enough for academic English. I’m just going to take applied courses and not aspire to anything more’.”

“When I hear about students just starting high school who go straight into applied courses because their teachers tell them they’re not smart enough for more -- that breaks my heart because I used to hear the same thing,” Vela says, “Some people just don’t understand the effect those kinds of comments can have on a student. It’s kind of like they don’t get a chance. They’re just out the door and set for failure. And it’s not fair because it’s just based on the colour of their skin.”

When she’s not in the newsroom, Vela, who now lives in Toronto’s west-end, runs track competitively. “I would be a professional athlete if I was not in journalism,” she says. While her main event has traditionally been triple jump (she is a provincial gold medalist in triple), her new focus is on sprinting, and her main event is the 60-metre dash. Vela also claims a love of the fine arts – she is majoring in drama at U of T Scarborough, and says at one point she thought about theatre acting as a career.

Vela plans to graduate in 2010 from the joint journalism program offered by Centennial College and the University of Toronto Scarborough. She says she is considering graduate school in the United States, and perhaps a historically black college. If not, then she says she just wants to get right into the workforce. Wherever she ends up, she knows what she wants her legacy to be.

“I would like to be known as someone who accomplished her goals no matter what she was told,” Vela says, “I’d also like to be an inspiration to other young black women. I’d tell them to just go for your dreams and do whatever it is that you want to do, and don’t let anyone cut you down or limit you in any way.”

For more information on the Journalism program, visit:

Felicia Carty is a graduate of the journalism program offered jointly by U of T Scarborough and Centennial College.

© University of Toronto Scarborough