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From homeless shelter to top of his class

Anh Cao receives the John Black Aird Scholarship from UTSC Principal Bruce Kidd during the UTSC convocation ceremony. (Photo by Ken Jones)

As UTSC student Anh Cao rose during convocation to accept his award for top student at U of T, it marked the culmination of an incredible journey both in distance and sacrifices made.

“I’ve been through some difficult times, but I’m not complaining," he says. "Without the support of my friends, people who have become like family to me, there’s no way I would have made it.”

Cao, who graduated with an honours bachelor of science degree, is the recipient of this year’s John Black Aird award for the top student at U of T as well as a Governor General’s Silver Medal for being one of the university’s most academically outstanding graduates. It marks the third year in a row that a UTSC student has received the Aird scholarship.

But the story of how he came to the top is not an easy one.

Cao’s journey to Canada began with a scholarship sponsored by the government of Vietnam. He heard about U of T’s academic reputation but knew very little else about Canada and had no family or friends here. He also soon discovered that although generous, the scholarship would not come close to covering all of his tuition and living expenses.

“Many people assume since I’m an international student that I’m wealthy, but my parents earn the equivalent of about $500 Canadian per month,” he says.

After completing his first year he made the difficult decision to sleep in a youth homeless shelter in Scarborough for four months so he could afford to take summer courses.

Over the years he’s relied on the support of friends he’s made in Canada to make ends meet. He’s also been able to live rent free at his friend’s place this past year, while another friend’s mother packed him lunches. He also struck up a friendship with Karen Siddique, an employee in UTSC’s facilities department, who brought him dinner every day so he wouldn’t have to worry about food. As a thank you Anh invited Siddique to his convocation ceremony.

“I learned that Canadians, and especially those living in Toronto, are very generous people,” says Cao.

As an undergraduate, Cao won numerous awards including an international student award from the City of Toronto and a prestigious Undergraduate Research Training Award from the Stem Cell Network. He also received an entrance scholarship and the A. D. Allen scholarship through U of T.

He’s also proven to be a leader outside of the classroom. In addition to working as an academic programmer and promoter in residence he’s also worked as a teaching assistant and as a course facilitator with the Centre for Teaching and Learning.

Cao also volunteered as a palliative care worker for two years with hospice Toronto, helping patients facing life-threatening illness in the final stages of life.

“As a child I dreamed of one day becoming a doctor, so I’ve always had a desire to help people,” he says. “It’s not always easy helping people who are preparing to die, but I’ve always tried my best in the hope that it’s making their lives a little easier.”

He recently finished working in Professor Bebhinn Treanor’s lab where he completed a year-long biology thesis course. Treanor says his reputation for scholarship was also cemented as a facilitator for the Facilitated Study Groups (FSGs) over the past two years.

“I often heard from new undergraduate research students ‘Oh, I know Anh, he ran my FSG,’ which was always followed by ‘He was amazing!’” says Treanor.

“Anh is a special student and this award could not go to a more deserving person.”

Cao has only seen his family once since he started university, flying back to visit them in Ho Chi Minh City following a co-op placement at Sunnybrook Hospital in December 2013.

He misses his family but keeps tabs on what’s happening through his mother’s daily emails that serve as a source of news and encouragement from back home. His mother learned how to type and send emails right before he left for Canada.

“She keeps me honest and makes sure I’m not drinking coffee or dying my hair,” he says with a smile.

Cao says he’s learned many things from his parents including a strong work ethic and how to remain positive and humble at the same time. “They are my source of encouragement. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have made it this far,” he says.

As for the future, Cao wants to finish his master’s degree in immunology at UTSC first before making any firm decisions.

It’s all part his plan, the one where he prefers to take things one step at a time, confronting any challenges with a smile on his face and the positive spirit he learned from his family. 

© University of Toronto Scarborough