“It might seem daunting,” PhD student Zain Raza acknowledged in a video providing application tips to prospective students in the Department of Philosophy earlier this year. “The size, the privilege, the status, the reputation of the department” all might make you think of it as a place focused solely on cool intellectual pursuit and competition—but nothing, according to Raza, could be further from the truth: “It’s actually very welcoming; you’d be surprised.”
One of the reasons for this, it turns out, is Raza himself, and others like him: graduate students who—besides piecing apart longstanding philosophical puzzles and proposing fresh solutions to them—dedicate significant time and effort to creating a friendly, inclusive, and supportive atmosphere in the department for their peers.
Realizing how much such efforts contribute to the department’s ongoing success and cohesiveness, Martin Pickavé, the chair of the Graduate Department of Philosophy, felt it was time for some public recognition—and called into existence the Graduate Student Service Awards this year.
The inaugural awards, which come with a $1,000 cash prize per recipient, went to five students, rather than the three originally envisioned: Kristen Beard, Jack Beaulieu, Alexandra Gustafson, Emma McClure, and Zain Raza.
“The past 18 months have been exceptionally challenging on many levels,” Pickavé acknowledged; it felt important to give an extra nod to students’ innovative commitment to helping each other out and keeping things running smoothly. Even so, picking only five names from the many nominations (made by graduate students, faculty, and staff) “was really tough—we have extraordinary students,” said Amy Mullin, the director of graduate studies (official title: associate chair, graduate).
Nomination letters bear this out: writers emphasized the helpful—even life-saving—nature of initiatives by the newly created Mental Health & Disability Caucus (MH&D), co-chaired by Beard and Gustafson, within the Graduate Philosophy Student Union (GPSU), for which Raza serves as president. These include bi-weekly Office Hours for Well-Being hosted by Beard, which one nominator described as “peer-mentoring sessions [that] provide a low-stakes place to talk through problems.”
Another wrote of Gustafson: “Alexandra has been a driving force behind our recently inaugurated Mental Health & Disability Caucus and [her] unwavering dedication to the well-being of our graduate community and her hard work on behalf of so many of us have made a tremendous difference during this difficult year.”
McClure, too, has lent her ideas to the MH&D Caucus, but in her case, Pickavé noted, the recognition is almost “a lifetime achievement award” for service to the department. The award-winning instructor and researcher, who will finish her dissertation over the summer and already has a position lined up at St. Mary’s University in Halifax for the fall, has served in various GPSU positions, co-organized a successful graduate conference, inaugurated reading groups, and given presentations to incoming undergraduates on philosophical writing and the importance of mental health during one’s studies.
The co-organization of an outstanding graduate conference in 2021, noteworthy for its emphasis on diversifying the canon, as well as many hours dedicated to newly established Global Philosophy research group talks and invaluable assistance with department-internal grant-writing workshops for graduate students put Beaulieu on the roster for the Graduate Student Service Awards.
Besides presiding over the GPSU and being “a cornerstone” of the Graduate Forum, where grad students share their current work with their peers for constructive feedback, Raza has collaborated with Gustafson on new student orientation, served as “a liaison between grads and faculty during some especially heated conversations” during an intense pandemic, and yet “always has the energy to assist his fellow students,” as one nominator wrote admiringly.
The outpouring of kind words from the community really touched him, says Raza, though he quickly acknowledges that it takes a village: “I couldn’t have done all this work without the support of all the people around me, in the GPSU and the wider community of the department!”
It’s unusual for individual departments to award graduate student service awards, and their inauguration in the Department of Philosophy proves significant, Gustafson and Beard agree. “Graduate student service work is an essential part of what keeps the University of Toronto functioning, and I applaud the department in its decision to create graduate student service awards,” says Gustafson, adding, “I am deeply honoured to be recognized by the department in the awards’ inaugural year.”
Beard feels the same: “The very existence of the reward reminds me how much our department values graduate service. I’m honored that my participation in the community has had a positive impact on someone.”
There are many of those someones, and in the words of yet another nomination letter, “We really are very lucky to have such generous and passionate human beings in our department.” Thank you and congratulations to all.