Exercise your choices and stay true to who you are, says social activist

photo of Ratna Omidvar

In 1981 when Ratna Omidvar first came to Canada from Iran as a political refugee, she discovered that she could not work as a teacher because her qualifications were not recognized.

photo of Ratna OmidvarAs she needed work, Omidvar took a job in retail. The job required her to sell tubes and piping. “I was fired because I could not tell the difference between a tube and a pipe,” she said, “and I still can’t.”

Ratna Omidvar

Being terminated from the job changed the direction of her life and provided her with two important opportunities, Omidvar told graduating students during convocation ceremonies last Friday. “The first, was I decided to volunteer and someone watching me decided to give me a break. The second, was I took a course in not-for-profit management at York University.”

The experiences, she said, were life changing. Omidvar, a social activist and the president of the Maytree Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to reducing poverty and inequality in Canada, was given an honorary doctor of laws degree from York University as part of the 2012 Spring Convocation ceremony for graduates of the Faculty of Education.

“Unlike you, I did not leave York with a degree, but like you, I did leave with greater wisdom than when I entered,” she said.

“As you go out into the real world of work, you don’t need me to tell you that you are facing an uncertain future,” Omidvar said. “You will be faced with many choices and these choices will play a far more important role in forming your future than any trend in the labour market.”

She told graduating students that they had many choices available to them. They were free to travel, associate with and be whatever or whomever they wanted. “No one is going to put you in jail for exercising your choices, you are the architects of your own future and your future does not rely on your social status and you have the power to vote governments in and out as you please.”

It is a big deal said Omidvar. “When I grew up in India, I did not have these choices. For the first two decades of my life, I was someone’s daughter, sister, student, I was always someone else’s responsibility.”

After striking out on her own, she made many choices, some wise and some foolish, but these choices, she said, shaped her life. After marrying and settling in Iran, Omidvar was forced to flee the country as a political refugee. She came to Canada with her family.

In her new country, among the many choices she faced was what to do with her name.  Omidvar was advised by a family friend to change her name if she wished to be successful “because it sounded strange”. She entertained many choices, including Rita, Rhonda, Rosa, but none fit her as well as Ratna. The very act of keeping her name, she said, reminds her of who she is.

She took many jobs, including work as a writer and a film production assistant, but none were satisfying. Then she realized that her best choice was to work in the not-for-profit sector. A choice that she said helped her realize tremendous personal and professional satisfaction.

To close her convocation address, Omidvar left grads with five ideas that she has learned from her life:

  • Embrace risk with both arms.
  • Don’t let perfection stand in the way of doing good, because it will hold you back.
  • Help yourself to free advice by finding a mentor, and be a mentor.
  • Remember the most important privilege you have – the ability to vote.
  • Take action and make progress to imagine and implement solutions.

York’s Spring Convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. To view Omidvar’s address, visit the Convocation website.