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Caring for Others: Trent Alumni Making a Difference on Local and Global Scale

August 3, 2016

Maryam Monsef smiling at the camera while wearing a red scarf and standing at the Great hall

This story is featured in the Spring 2016 issue of Showcase: The Champions of Change Issue. » View the complete publication

"I leave Trent armed with the knowledge that when I put my mind to it, I can matter.”

These were the words spoken by the Honourable Maryam Monsef ’03, Minister of Democratic Institutions, at her recent Trent convocation. But they might as easily be attributed to any number of fellow alumni, including Dr. James Orbinski '80 and Ryan Heighton '05 who, like Minister Monsef, have devoted their lives to working towards social change.

A Biology and Psychology graduate, Minister Monsef recently became Canada's first Afghanistan-born MP and the youngest minister in cabinet. While at Trent, she volunteered and worked at the Office of Human Rights and was involved in many student groups including the Ontario Public Research Interest Group (OPIRG), the Trent Muslim Students’ Association, and the World University Service of Canada’s Afghanistan Challenge.

She credits her experience at Trent with positively shaping her career path and helping her realize that she could make a difference. After graduation, she became a force for good in the Peterborough community, and co-founded, with fellow alumna Jessica Melnik '03, the Red Pashmina Campaign which supports women and girls in Afghanistan. Turns out, that was just the beginning.

"My life’s challenge is to provide others with the same incredible opportunities I have been afforded so far,” she says.

Responding to the needs of others

"Trent has given me skills and a joy in learning that allow me to continuously adapt and shape my participation in the world," says renowned humanitarian Dr. James Orbinski. The former Traill College don graduated from Trent with a degree in Psychology, before going on to medical school.

A founder and past president of Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Dr. Orbinski has delivered medical assistance to people in numerous countries, while enduring civil war, epidemics and genocide. In recognition of his work, in 1999, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on MSF's behalf.

In addition to his work with MSF, Dr. Orbinski, is a co-founder of Dignitas International, a medical humanitarian organization, and is a recipient of the Meritorious Service Cross, Canada's highest civilian award. He recounted his experiences in a best-selling book, An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the 21st Century. An award-winning documentary, Triage, chronicled his journey to complete the book.

"Humanity is about responding to the needs of others when there aren’t other ways in which those needs can be met," he says.

An advocate for vulnerable people

Ryan Heighton's passion for helping others was born on the streets of downtown Peterborough, where he witnessed people struggling with mental illness and addictions, and nurtured at Trent University where he tutored fellow students.

"Trent has a strong sense of community," he says. "It's the kind of school that breeds attitudes like my own, with people focused on social justice issues."

After acquiring both a B.Sc. in Biology and M.Sc. in Environmental & Life Sciences from Trent, he went on to Osgoode Law School, where he worked with Fair Change Community Services, a student-led initiative that assists homeless and street-involved individuals with their court cases.

Today, Mr. Heighton advocates for vulnerable people at a Kitchener-based criminal law practice where he is a partner, Cox, Heighton LLP.

"There is a lot of satisfaction in helping people who have mental health and addiction issues," he says. “Many of them have had tough upbringings and need the social support."