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‘If you see a problem, go to its root,’ says award-winning UTSC student

Human biology and health studies student Metasebia Assefa received the Toronto International Student Award of Excellence for community service. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Where many only see Africa through the lens of poverty, corruption and despair, Metasebia Assefa sees nothing but opportunity for growth and development.

“Of course corruption and poverty leads to incredibly negative situations,” she says. “Rather than dwell on that despair, I’m motivated to do something about it.”

The fourth-year human biology and health studies student at UTSC is this year’s recipient of a City of Toronto International Student Award of Excellence for community service.

Assefa is truly a citizen of the world. Born in England before moving to Ethiopia, then Ghana and Kenya, and later the place dearest to her heart,  Zimbabwe. It’s where she spent her teenage years and started on a course of helping others that continues today in her adopted city of Toronto.

In high school she started a club dedicated to digging a well and building a library in Kaymmadare, a small rural community outside of Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe. The project spoke to Assefa’s desire for sustainable development.

“There’s always a push for aid in Africa and often it’s helpful and necessary, but simply throwing money at a problem in the hopes it will go away can fuel corruption,” she says. “We wanted to equip this community with the tools, including education, so it can become self-sustaining.”

She also became involved with Mabvuku Math, a tutoring program started by her high school math teacher for children affected by HIV and AIDS.

“The communities we volunteered in are very vulnerable, filled with either the very young or the very old,” she says. “It’s usually left up to grandparents to raise children because their parents have either died or left because the medical costs of raising their children are too great.”

The most gratifying part of volunteering with the program, says Assefa, is that many of the children she helped tutor went on to be successful in math programs at university.

In Toronto she has volunteered as a program coordinator for sexual health and nutritional health with the Health and Wellness Centre while also organizing events for Free the Children and the Daily Bread Food Bank.

“My philosophy is pretty simple; if you see a problem go to the root of that problem,” she says. “Many of the issues in Africa are rooted in public health, so getting behind a program like a public education campaign on proper condom use could go a long way in reducing the rate of HIV/AIDS.”

Assefa’s immediate goal is to receive a master’s in public health before going to medical school. Wherever it takes her, her plan is to make a positive impact in the world.

“I would like to make a difference in my home country, wherever I end up, whether it’s home in Ethiopia or Zimbabwe or here in Canada,” she says. “I just want to make a difference.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough