Class of 2005 encouraged to take the road less travelled

In their convocation addresses to the University’s class of 2005, York honorary doctorate recipients Hassanali Lakhani and Daphne Schiff urged graduates to pursue the road less travelled, take nothing for granted and give back to society. Lakhani and Schiff were honoured by York University as part of the 2005 Spring Convocation ceremonies for Faculty of Arts graduates which took place at York’s Keele campus on Monday.

York awarded philanthropist Hassanali Lakhani an honorary doctor of laws degree in recognition of his charitable works and significant contributions to Toronto’s Islamic community. The head of a business family that came to Canada in the 1980s via England after two generations in their native Kenya, Lakhani made his first donation to help a friend’s child with his education. Since then he has helped build schools, contributed to a girls’ orphanage in India and purchased the building that is now home to Downsview’s Talim-Ul-Islam mosque.

Right: From left, Lorna R. Marsden, York’s president and vice-chancellor; Hassanali Lakhani; and Peter Cory, chancellor of York University. Photographs by Cangrad Studios.

Lakhani noted he was 64 years older than most of his fellow graduands and felt deeply honoured. “Never in my life, until just a few weeks ago, did I have any notion of a university degree for myself and here I am now.”

Robert Drummond, dean of York’s Faculty of Arts, said Lakhani has demonstrated, in all his endeavours, “a combination of selflessness and determination that makes us proud to associate ourselves with him by awarding him the degree of doctor of laws honoris causa.”

Appointed president of the Ismaili Council of London, England, by the Aga Khan in 1973, Lakhani continued to support the Ismaili community on his arrival in Canada. He established the Noor Fellowship in Islamic Studies at York (see story in the Oct. 23, 2003 issue of YFile). The fellowship is a central part of the program of the Noor Cultural Centre, which offers religious, educational, recreational and social programs with an emphasis on justice and gender equality. The three-year fellowship, made possible by a $500,000 gift from the Lakhani family, enhanced the University’s existing Islamic Studies Program in the Division of Humanities, Faculty of Arts, and set new precedents for future relationships between York and Toronto’s Islamic community.

Right: Hassanali Lakhani receives his honorary degree from Chancellor Peter Cory

The centre serves as a hub for dialogue on Islam and other world faiths and is home to the York-Noor Lecture Series, offered in collaboration with the Religious Studies Program in York’s Faculty of Arts. Lakhani said he was “immensely impressed with the percipience of Dean Robert Drummond and York University Foundation president and CEO Paul Marcus in encouraging and welcoming the partnership between the University and Noor Cultural Centre.”

The second born of seven sons and two daughters, Lakhani left school at 17 to work in a trading company with his older brother. They continued to build the company and support their younger siblings until all either joined the company or married. He told the graduands in the audience that his family’s success grew out of the need to survive and provide for his family.

“We lived in a society which at that time had no social safety nets, with state-provided medicines and education,” Lakhani recalled. “We took nothing for granted and we could expect nothing for free.” That experience, he said, gave him and his siblings “a sense of ultimate responsibility” and pride in their work.

“When you have worked hard to go to university…it can be dispiriting not to find the perfect job for your qualifications right away,” Lakhani said. “That is when it helps to go back to basics [and say] no job is beneath me. Know that you are privileged and that you are smart…and that you live in one of the best countries in the world where all people are considered equal before the law where the state supports organizations to help in almost every area of life. Then believe that you have everything you need to go ahead, inshallah [God willing].”

Professor Daphne Schiff has taken a road less travelled. A long-standing member of York’s academic community, Schiff has taught in the Division of Natural Science, always bringing her characteristic flair to her classes, exciting students and engaging them in the pursuits of science. Her annual landing of her plane on York’s south fields for her “science of flight” course captured the attention of the entire University community. Her love of flying led her to membership in “the ninety-nines”, Amelia Earhart’s prestigious international women’s flying sorority, spending 25 years as a competitive flyer. In 1996, Schiff and her flying partner, Adele Fogle, competed in the first 26,000-kilometre Race of the Americas. Since 2000, the pair has volunteered with Air Solidarité to fly annual missions to deliver medical and teaching supplies to Africa. (See the Jan. 26, 2005 issue of YFile.)

Right: From left, Lorna R. Marsden, Daphne Schiff and Peter Cory

York awarded Schiff, 81, an honorary doctor of laws in recognition of her life’s work as an educator and for her humanitarian work. In his introductory remarks, John Lennox, dean of York’s Faculty of Graduate Studies, said, “She clearly knows how to engage the interest of students in science as this comment from her demonstrates: ‘If you talk equations, they leave the room. The science of flight and weather and how you stay up there works wonders – it is all the same theory.'”

Lennox lauded Schiff’s role as a competitive flyer and a trendsetter, and her work delivering humanitarian aid to communities in West Africa. “Daphne Schiff’s dedication to science education, her spirit of adventure, her courage, her curiosity, her indomitability and her service to others embody how one individual can be a role model to students to all who know or know of her,” said Lennox. “Extraordinary qualities by any measure.”

Speaking as torrential rains battered the convocation tent and thunder threatened to deafen those present, Schiff delivered a plucky, eloquent and moving speech. She congratulated the graduates and their parents on a “fight well-fought”. She then encouraged them to enhance their degrees through further learning, or by following a path dedicated to humanitarian service. “I advise you to follow your heart and always keep a goal in mind and at the same time remember that the world needs your help.”

Right: Daphne Schiff receives her honorary degree from Chancellor Peter Cory

She spoke about sacrifice and giving back to society through organizations such as Engineers Without Borders and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). “Your reward comes from waking up every day content with your life,” asserted Schiff.

She cautioned graduates of the danger of computer screens and instant messaging which she described as “faceless encounters” and advised students to be visible. “Visibility is the key. I’ve tried visibility ever since I became a lecturer at York. As you’ve heard, for the science of flight course, I landed a [Cessna] 172 here at York, it was a bumpy ride but it was visible.

“We live in a time of extraordinary opportunity,” remarked Schiff. “Never underestimate what you are capable of. Continue to follow your heart with your goal in mind and think about how you make a contribution to better the world.”