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Becoming an Uplifting Leader | Ayesha Bhikha’s Master of Education Valedictorian Q&A 

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

It’s that quote from late poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou that Yorkville University’s 2023 Master of Education in Educational Leadership valedictorian Ayesha Bhikha says motivates her every day. 

As a program management professional with 23+ years of progressive experience in the Canadian and international not-for-profit and corporate sectors, Bhikha’s ultimate aim is to become a leader who uplifts and empowers marginalized individuals, so that they can reach their fullest potential in Canada.

Her hope in enrolling at Yorkville, she said, was that continuing her studies would help her elevate her knowledge to better prepare herself for a senior leadership role in that line of work. 

“The diverse courses offered via the (MEEL) program aligned with my career trajectory of striving to be a leader who specializes in the design and delivery of community-based projects intended to support and empower immigrants and other marginalized/equity-seeking individuals and groups,” said Bhikha, who now serves as the Director of Career & Women’s Services at Achēv, a renowned not-for-profit organization in Ontario.

Bhikha recently sat down to reflect on her time at Yorkville University and her plans for the future. Here’s what she had to say:

What brought you to Yorkville University? Where were you in your life/career when you decided to continue your studies with us? 

From a very young age, my mother instilled in me the importance of education. She also instilled the infinite value that continued education can add to multiple facets of my personal and professional life. I experienced my greatest tragedy when I unexpectedly lost my mother in May 2020. COVID-related international travel restrictions prevented me from saying my final goodbye to her, which further exacerbated my grief. The values she ingrained in me have had a profound impact on my life. Therefore, I decided to honour her memory through continued education. I actively researched Master’s programs offered by various educational institutions across Canada. I was immediately drawn to the rigorous curriculum and calibre of the faculty of the Master of Education in Educational Leadership program at Yorkville University. In tribute to my mother and to deal with the profound loss and grief that followed, I began the Master’s program at Yorkville in January 2021. At the time, I held a management position in a not-for-profit organization in the Greater Toronto Area. I have always been an ambitious individual and was keen on elevating my knowledge that would better prepare me for a senior leadership role. The diverse courses offered via the program aligned with my career trajectory of striving to be a leader who specializes in the design and delivery of community-based projects intended to support and empower immigrants and other marginalized/equity-seeking individuals and groups. Furthermore, my Admissions Advisor, Symone Jennings, was an excellent resource who attentively supported me from my initial enquiry. This was a testament to the quality of care applied to current and future students at Yorkville University. As a result of these positive experiences and feelings, Yorkville University became my choice of learning institution to pursue the Master of Education in Educational Leadership program.

What made you decide to pursue your Master of Education in Educational Leadership? 

I discovered my career aspiration approximately 20 years ago. My goal was to have a meaningful and thriving career in the not-for-profit/social services sector. I have always been passionate about supporting and empowering marginalized individuals to realize their fullest potential so that they can live their best life. I have had the privilege of working in the international and Canadian not for profit sectors for approximately 19 years. I currently work in a senior leadership role, where I provide strategic direction to a portfolio of community-based, government-funded projects that support and empower immigrants, women, and other equity-seeking individuals and groups. I have an insatiable appetite for learning. I decided to pursue the Master of Education in Educational Leadership program with the intent of acquiring new knowledge, including new and evolved ways of thinking so that I can become a better leader, co-worker, and collaborator. I leaned into the idea of continuous learning and growth as it was essential for making a meaningful impact in the not-for-profit sector. I was keen to share my diverse experiences, as well as learn from my colleagues and professors. I wanted to challenge myself by stepping out of my comfort zone and re-evaluating my inherent biases and preconceived notions about leadership and society at large. This self-reflection was crucial in fostering an inclusive and equitable environment. I was keen on acquiring tools and strategies that would help me embody an intersectional lens so that I can be a more thoughtful and considerate human being who encourages and supports diversity of thought and actions of those inhabiting my personal and professional circle.

What is the most important thing you’re taking away from your time at Yorkville University?

The single most important lesson I am taking away is being comfortable and accepting the fact that I will always be in a state of “arriving”. In other words, I will always be in a continuous state of evolving, refining, improving, adapting, enhancing, and changing. I have become accustomed to the idea of challenging and encouraging myself to be more reflexive and introspective. I developed a deeper understanding of the subject matters pertaining to ethical leadership, diversity, equity, equality, inclusion, accessibility, and sustainability. I now have a heightened awareness of my thoughts, actions, language, and tone and how my lack of consideration and empathy can hurt and harm others. The learnings from the program have encouraged me to confidently embody the “think globally and act locally” mindset which has influenced me to see, accept, and respect individuals for who they are and their lived experiences. I have been so fortunate to forge and foster meaningful discussions and relationships with my peers and faculty members which has broadened my scope of knowledge and awareness of the strengths, challenges, and best practices across diverse professions and sectors within and outside of Canada. I am passionate about supporting and empowering equity-seeking individuals and groups to realize their fullest potential so that they can live their best and most authentic lives. Every single individual I encountered through this learning journey has helped me learn, grow, and transform into a more thoughtful and relational human being. I am humbled and honoured to have had the opportunity to partake in this shared learning experience.

What are your plans after graduation, both immediate and long term? 

I am incredibly happy and proud of choosing Yorkville University to pursue my Master of Education in Educational Leadership program. This has been one of THE BEST adult learning experiences in my life. This two-year-long educational journey has gifted me with a toolbox of skills and knowledge, and I am determined to make a conscious and concerted effort to use those tools with care and caution to address this very important question that consistently informs my daily thoughts and actions, “How can I unequivocally advocate for those without a voice in our society so that they can be seen, heard, accepted, and empowered?”. I will continue my advocacy efforts via shared learning, while also assisting and empowering my staff, program clientele, and colleagues in the not-for-profit sector so that they can feel physically and psychologically safe to bring their whole and authentic selves to work and other spaces they inhabit. Being the life-long learner I am, I have already started looking into another Master’s program, which I hope to pursue in 2024.

If you offered one piece of advice to an incoming student, what would that be?

My advice to an incoming student is to remain curious and to not be afraid or uncomfortable to question and re-evaluate their thoughts, ideas, and behaviours. Be open to the idea of being challenged by your learning community. Certain weeks of each course, especially mid-term and final assignment weeks might be somewhat challenging, especially when trying to juggle your home and work life. Try your best to stay organized and put in some extra effort every day if possible. Believe in your ability, strength, and resilience and do not give in to the idea of crumbling under pressure. Yorkville University understands that adult learning can be complex and challenging. The phenomenal faculty, along with other support mechanisms in place at Yorkville will help you through your struggle. Try your best to appreciate and enjoy the learning journey, as it is bound to take you on a path that will lead to self-discovery and transformation. At the end of the two years, you are guaranteed to walk away with invaluable and newfound knowledge and shared experiences that will positively enrich and transform your personal and professional life, just as it has transformed mine. In my eyes, this is a journey unreservedly worth taking.

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