Student leaders have a new launchpad: How the Dean’s Circle breaks the mold in leadership learning

Actor Shamier Anderson with students from the Dean's Circle and the Black Student Experience Team
Actor Shamier Anderson (front, far right), who played "Mr. Nobody in John Wick: Chapter 4," was one of several guest speakers at the new Dean's Circle at U of T Scarborough (Photos by Marc Alolod).

Alexa Battler

An actor and assassin from John Wick: Chapter 4, a Grammy-nominated singer, a top executive at rapper Drake’s clothing line — they all answered the same question for students in a new program: “How would you define your leadership style?”

The first Dean’s Circle had several eyebrow-raising Canadians in its lineup of guest speakers, among them actor Shamier Anderson, singer Jessie Reyez and CFO/COO of OVO Drex Jancar. Each reflected on their leadership journeys for the circle’s first cohort: 20 upper-year undergrads who’d applied with their long track records of contributing to the campus. It was all part of a two-month crash course in self-discovery that had students explore and define their own leadership styles, and create projects to improve the school.

“We want to help students build a toolkit they can use in the situations they might be actually experiencing as leaders,” says Neel Joshi, dean of the Office of Student Experience and Wellbeing (OSEW). “This is a strategic way to invest in students that we know will invest in our campus to make this place better.”

The students of the first Dean's Circle
Students received certificates after completing the first Dean's Circle program from late September to early November.

The circle met weekly for learning modules, which dove into different aspects of leadership through workbooks, open discussions, and guest speakers interviewed by Joshi and program co-lead Gavin Sheppard, a prolific entrepreneur behind multiple organizations that advocate for young people. One module had students decide which of their traits was their “superpower,” others focused on team building and design thinking, another sent them on a tour of Scarborough’s first billion-dollar company with its founder Sam Ibrahim, who spoke about the importance of staying connected to one’s roots. 

A photo of Sam Ibrahim and Neel Joshi
Sam Ibrahim (left), whose investment established the upcoming Sam Ibrahim Centre for Inclusive Excellence in Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Leadership at U of T Scarborough, spoke with Neel Joshi, dean of the Office of Student Experience and Wellbeing during one of the circle's meetings.

At the program’s halfway mark, students were hiking through the Scarborough Bluffs with Joshi for a retreat, discussing what “a good life” means to them. Their talks (and a significant chunk of the program) were both philosophical and practical, considering the circle’s mantra is “lead from within,” or the idea that strong leaders use a deep understanding of themselves, their values and their struggles to guide others. 

Chanelle Mendes, a sixth-year student in health policy and mental health studies, knows what it’s like to struggle — with the academic grind, with wellbeing, with the pressures of life. After the Dean’s Circle, she says she’s realized every setback has made her a better leader, and she can now define her leadership style as one firmly grounded in empathy. The module on wellness has stayed with her, as did hearing someone as wildly successful as Jessie Reyez endorse the idiom “health is wealth.” 

“Sometimes you’re in your 20s and you feel like you’re going through all this stuff and it’s not really going to make you stronger,” says Mendes. “But to hear leaders say, ‘Yes, it’s made me a better, more caring, softer, sensitive person,’ it gives you hope to hear that from folks with years in the industry who are leaders in their fields.”

Students walking along the Scarborough Bluffs
Students walked along the iconic Scarborough Bluffs for a picturesque retreat halfway through the program with Neel Joshi. 

The program culminated in a mission. Students were sorted into groups based on which OSEW department they were most interested in helping, then set out to find what the community felt was a problem or gap in accessing services. The teams were tasked with designing a solution and presenting it to a panel of judges, in a competition for a bursary to turn the winning idea into reality.  

Fifth-year student Philip George’s team came up with a campaign to add a student liaison from the Health and Wellness Centre to each club on campus, in roles that would connect members with health-boosting resources and add a mental health approach to existing activities. George says it wasn’t just the content of the circle that helped him learn more about himself, but the rest of his cohort. 

“I only have two ears and one perspective, one lens that I hear everything through. And with the Dean’s Circle, I had the opportunity to hear 19 other perspectives,” he says. “Even when I didn’t necessarily have any questions for the guest speakers, when my peers got something out of it, I got something out of it.”

The program wrapped in January, but its members still stay in touch through a group chat, and George and Mendes both say they’re constantly running into their former circlemates whenever they come to campus. George’s leadership style is still difficult to articulate, but what now he knows for sure is that he wants to “inspire dependable people.”

“There are some people that say, ‘You have a bright future,’ and then there are people that show you how bright your future can be. I want to be one of the people that show you.”

The first cohort of the Dean's Circle at the Scarborough Bluffs
The first cohort of U of T Scarborough's new Dean's Circle, together at the Scarborough Bluffs.