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Campus Profile: Rabbia Ashraf CESAR President

Woman, leader, student, changemaker,and activist are just a few words that I would use to describe Rabbia Ashraf, CESAR (Continued Education Students’ Association at Ryerson) President. I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing this phenomenal individual who really encompasses social change and hope. Throughout the questions I asked her, I gathered a glimpse into the life of Rabbia which includes her life experiences, struggles, accomplishments, and passions.Living a struggling life, Rabbia has endured very layered concerns that has paved the way to her life now.


Maryam: Tell me about your journey to becoming the President of CESAR.

Rabbia: I started school in 2010 at the University of Toronto, and my parents lived in Massachusetts. They sent me to Canada to get an education, because my older sister was already in school in the United States and they could not afford to take on more student loans. So being a Canadian citizen, I could benefit from taking OSAP and student loans and support myself that way. I was always one of those kids who did very well in high school, and got straight A’s, so I pretty much succeeded in the secondary school system. However, university was not the same; I was very unprepared. I was taking a life science degree, but I wasn’t great at it and I didn’t know how to ask for help. I was missing my family so much, especially coming from a culture where family is so deeply rooted in the values. They were the only people I had, and they were the people I left behind. I was having mental health crisis, and I was struggling so much with school to the point where I stopped going to classes and stopped taking exams. I had trouble supporting myself financially, and I didn’t know where my next meal would be coming from. I did this thing where I would take part in psychological experiments that compensated money, and I would use that for survival. It was really hard at that time. I was put on academic probation for a year. I used that time for a lot of soul searching and figuring out what I wanted to do. When I was ready to come back, I realized UofT was not for me. I got back into education. Then at the same time, my sister was sent back to Canada from the states, because she had her work visa taken away. When she came here, she got involved with the Canadian Federation of Students, and told me, “keep an eye on your students union, I think it’s CESAR”.  So I looked out for CESAR, and I found out that they were going through so many problems, where the elected people and the paid staff weren’t getting along. So, the organization was falling apart. I started going to meetings, and saw them talking about mental health, access to education and that a student’s’ union is there to make sure they were helping the struggling students on campus. This all clicked so much with me, because all of my past experiences and histories were being reflected in this one organization. So, fast forward to now, I had different executive positions until one day I decided I was ready to take on more of a leadership role. I lobbied, planned events, and gained a lot of skills; which led to me be ready fitting into this position.

Maryam: That was quite thorough! I loved the link between your personal life and this position; it makes it so relatable to other students facing similar situations. So, what pushes you to fight the good fight?

Rabbia: My parents really struggled. They both had degrees from their home country, and when Canada passed the immigration policy calling for professionals and the educated populations in countries with lower economic standing. They decided to move, because the country they were in had war and turmoil. It wasn’t cheap to immigrate though, they had to take out loans from people they knew to afford to immigrate to Canada. Once they got here, it was very difficult for them to find employment and they also had enormous loans to pay off. Eventually they decided to go to the states. Unfortunately, it was October 2001 when we arrived. (As you can tell, my name sounds very Muslim, and my family’s name is very Muslim.) My father was opening a medical lab with his friend from Pakistan who also has a Muslim sounding name. At this time, they were looking at Muslims under a microscope. So they investigated my father’s lab and freezed all the financial activity. So long story short, we moved back to Canada for 3 years. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is there are people out there who are just like me, and who have it much worse than me. There isn’t always the space people have to go to, so that they can feel safe talking about their concerns and their troubles. Having a union like CESAR enables people like me who have struggles to have a community to go to. Again, I do this because it is me.


Maryam: I do agree that there is an issue with individuals having a place to go in order to find assistance and community, and I’m glad CESAR exists for individuals who need that place. What social concern are you most passionate about?

Rabbia: Access to education. Hands down. Access to education is what I’m most passionate about because I know the power education has to transform communities. The current system of post-secondary education; I don’t agree with it, I don’t think it’s good. What we need to do is get the people who need to be here and get this access to education, and those people are the marginalized, low-income. The people that don’t normally have access to the things they need to have access to. I’ve studied sociology, social work, global health and consistently education is something that determines how healthy you’re going to be, whether you’re pursuing a life of crime,, whether you’re tolerant, whether you’re going to be a member of this society that is actually going to help build it or break it down. So, access to education is my number one priority because I know the trickle-down effect it can have to change people, and I think we can see that reflected everywhere.

Maryam: What benefits have you seen from the work you’ve done and how has it helped the communities around you?

Rabbia: I think it’s so hard to measure success, and it’s so hard to be entrenched in this capitalistic society that wants to measure success and want to be like how are you moving forward. However, tangibly what I’ve seen is that I’ll see someone who is struggling and they’ll come to a meeting, volunteer, or come out to a rally and they feel like they have a place they can go where they are accepted and can get the help they need. Another way, is watching a student’s union like CESAR that was broken turn into a group the administration fears which is wonderful. It has a lot to do with not taking the easy way out and we are not here to compromise on things that are affecting students’ lives so intricately. I know they are not too fond of us, because we push for the students not for the administration. I think that’s a really good marker of success, when the people in power are trying to keep an eye on you. We were able to get 8000 signatures from Ryerson students for the Fight the Fees Campaign. I think true success will be when we can push administration and government to actively make things like education free. So I think that’s a much larger and broader picture of success, but in terms of CESAR, this is an incredible student’s union built by people of the CESAR staff and other elected members how have left a little piece of them to make this union what it is today.


Maryam: Is there anyone or a group you look up to that has shaped your beliefs and values?

Rabbia: It’s basically the students around me that do this work too. I’ve been inspired by Sandy Hudson, Rodney Diverlus, and Pascale Diverlus who created Black Lives Matter Toronto and I can see how it’s growing and how it’s literally changing the society in front of us. I’m inspired by people like Gilary Massa who is one of the first visibly Muslim Black women to take on such a huge staff role at the Ryerson Student’s Union who I’ve had the pleasure of working with in my first year. It’s the people and students around me who have inspired me and shaped the way that I approach things. Last year, I wouldn’t be talking like this. I’d be stuttering a lot and be super nervous and sweaty, but just by being surrounded by people doing the work and doing it so passionately and you really just have to see them. They do it with their hearts. I obviously look up very, very much to my sister and to my parents. It’s super cheesy, and I’ve told you a little bit about them and their stories, and that is just a snapshot. The things my parents have gone through and to build have they have, and make sure we can do the things we want to do in our life. Also, my sister works at the Canadian Federation of Students of Ontario, and has really transformed so many different things. She’s also my best friend so I’m a little biased. All in all, it’s the student activists around me that inspire me.

Maryam: What is one piece of advice you would give yourself five years ago?

Rabbia: I would say to always question everything, because we come from these backgrounds where we don’t want to ask questions. Even in the simplest way like the method a lecture is being delivered if it’s not working for you. Basically, don’t be afraid to go up to the professor and say what you’re thinking. And even when asking simple questions I can see that it’s a system that’s broken. It’s a system that’s not working , and then get frustrated enough to go do something about it. I would say to take those baby steps and try not to be so afraid of taking those steps. I would say to myself five years ago “you could do it, just go out and ask the questions that you need to ask”.

Maryam: That’s such an important thing you’ve mentioned in regards to always asking questions. I think with any new transition in one’s life, there’s always that sense of holding back with what you actually want and need! Well, Rabbia those are my questions, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. I really believe many students at Ryerson will be able to relate to your experience and might even be inspired by you because I am!
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