York grad leaves legacy of positive change

Issa Jamaa and J.J. McMurtry

By Elaine Smith

Recent York University graduate Issa Abdi Jamaa is eager to apply the valuable lessons he has learned both inside and outside the classroom to the professional world. 

Jamaa arrived in Canada as a teenager for secondary school before attending university. After exploring various Canadian universities, he says he selected York for its academic excellence and vibrant multicultural and diverse community.

“As a Black international student, I felt that York exhibited real diversity and an authentic sense of belonging,” Jamaa said.

He enrolled in economics, where he excelled, earning an honours BA and graduating summa cum laude in Spring 2023. Jamaa was also a member of the Dean’s circle of student scholars in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS).

Issa Jamaa
Issa Jamaa delivering his speech at the Chancellor’s installation

Beyond academics, Jamaa cultivated a diverse skill set by seeking out challenging campus employment and extracurricular activities. As soon as he arrived at the Keele Campus, Jamaa jumped into governance activities, starting with the Economic Students’ Association. During his first semester at York, he was elected to the student government of Vanier College Council (VCC) as director of finance, then vice-president, academic and external affairs. A year later, he was elected as VCC’s president and orientation Chair.

For more than four consecutive academic years, Jamaa served as a designated student representative on the LA&PS Faculty Council. In that role, he advocated passionately and consistently for students, focusing on the needs of racialized, first-generation and international students.

There, he challenged the tendency to treat international students as “income generators on one hand, and social and cultural challenges on the other,” arguing that both positions are problematic. He encouraged faculty, staff and the dean’s offices to recognize the humanity of all students.

“In his tireless dedication to student issues, he challenged everyone he encountered to think differently and reconsider the needs of racialized, first-generation and international students,” said LA&PS Dean J.J. McMurtry. “Issa exhibits all the qualities we hope to see in our graduates: passion, perseverance and a commitment to social justice and advocacy. Whatever he chooses to do next, I know he will change the future for the better.”

Jamaa further extended his student advocacy as a volunteer on a number of Faculty committees, including the Committee on Teaching, Learning and Student Success, and the Committee on Curriculum, Curricular Policy and Standards, where he combined his support for students with an interest in inclusive pedagogy.

In 2019, Jamaa was elected as a senator for the York University Senate, the University’s highest academic governing body, where he also chaired the Senate’s student caucus. Through the caucus, he supported initiatives that included the University’s Anti-Black Racism Framework. His work in the Faculty Council and Senate opened the door to other opportunities, such as serving as a member of three University search committees: dean for the Faculty of LA&PS; vice-provost, students; and chancellor. His efforts came full circle when was a speaker at the induction ceremony for York University’s 14th chancellor, Kathleen Taylor, in May 2023.

He also participated as a student representative to the advisory committee that created the Division of Students’ most recent five-year strategic plan and was one of President Rhonda Lenton’s ambassadors for three years.

“It is exciting to see students building their leadership skills here at York and bringing the commitments of our University Academic Plan to life. Issa has helped students access opportunities to realize their full potential and his work will have a lasting impact as they in turn create positive change in communities around the world,” said Lisa Philipps, provost and vice-president academic. 

“Through all of these opportunities, I learned about how the institution worked, with its complex systems and governance structure,” Jamaa said. “I also found things that needed improvement from a student-centric perspective by taking every opportunity I got to voice the concerns of students.”

For example, Jamaa successfully advocated to make work-study positions accessible and equitable to all international, as well as domestic, students, collaborating with University partners such as York International, and senior University officials.

Throughout his undergraduate career, Jamaa held various professional jobs on campus, such as lead ambassador and senior special projects assistant at the Dean’s Office (LA&PS), as well as a special projects assistant at the Office of the University Registrar. Additionally, he assumed the role of a CCTV operator on campus, joining the team in 2018 and earning a promotion to team lead in 2020. Currently, Jamaa continues working with the community safety department’s CCTV team while focusing on his future endeavors.

“I’d like to gain more work experience for a few years before I return to my academic journey in earning either an MBA, or a law degree, or even a combination of both,” Jamaa said.

In recognition of Jamaa’s leadership, dedication to student advocacy and service to the University community, he earned several University-wide awards, including the eighth Annual Robert J. Tiffin Student Leadership Award, the Robert Everett Exceptional Leadership Award in Student Governance, the Outstanding Student Leadership Award, Faculty of LA&PS (twice), the Marilyn Lambert-Drache Award for Initiative in Governance, and the Alumni Golden GRADitude Award.

“Issa Jamaa exemplifies the core values of York University, showcasing the transformative potential of higher education and the immense impact of actively engaging in various aspects of university life,” said Vinitha Gengatharan, assistant vice-president, global engagement and partnerships. “His relentless commitment to effecting positive change and breaking down barriers, particularly for international students, serves as an inspiration to his peers and the wider community. With his unwavering determination and excellent skills, Issa is poised to make significant contributions in his future endeavors, while leaving a lasting legacy at York University.”