Alaa Azan was unlike anyone else at the Migration and Diaspora Student Research conference.

She was the only undergraduate student there.

A child studies student with a minor in psychology, Azan came to Canada from Yemen in 2014. And at the conference hosted at Carleton, she had the chance to speak about her thesis on child refugees.

Azan began working on the thesis, which would eventually earn her a Provost Scholar award, in her third year. She wanted to move away from viewing refugees as subjects of trauma or vulnerability, and instead focus on highlighting their strength and resiliency.

She asked students to draw a typical day at school in order to assess their experience in Canada. But Azan didn’t just write an innovative paper on the drawings. The translation of her work to the real-world began when Maria Teresa Garcia, director of the Multicultural Liaison Officer Program at the Ottawa Community Immigration Services Organization, wanted Azan to observe a regional Education Sector Table Meeting.

“That was so exciting… I was able to hear all about new projects in education,” she says.

Later, Azan’s work would become part of events for the Ottawa Chinese Community Services Centre and the Catholic Centre for Immigrants and Services for Syrian Refugees program.

An Unconventional Approach

Her engagement with the local community is having a significant impact on conversations about the school experiences of Syrian refugee students in Ottawa.

When asked why her work has had so much recognition, especially as an undergraduate, she credits an unconventional approach.

“Not many studies come from a strength-based approach in the Canadian context,” Azan says.

Alaa Azan

Alaa Azan

She credits working under Carol Rowan, an instructor in Carleton’s Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies as a major bonus.

“Dr. Carol Rowan definitely kept me motivated,” she says.

“We’re a very small department. I got to know all the professors and if I was struggling with anything I would reach out to a teaching assistant (TA) or a professor and they were extremely helpful,” Azan says.

Some of her best memories of Carleton include being a TA and participating last March in Capital Research Day: Thinking for the Future. When she won the Grand Champion Future Thinker award, she was surrounded by her friends.

“That was such an amazing moment for me,” she says.

The Importance of Flexibility

As for her experience as a TA, Azan recalls it as among her happiest moments at Carleton.

“It [was] through this experience that I realized how much joy I gain by supporting students’ learning and helping them succeed. I learned that our department is more like a family as we worked closely together and genuinely cared about the success of the course and the learning outcome . . . Ultimately, I was able to gain more appreciation towards our department not only as a student, but also as a TA.’’.

Azan remains firm in her belief that being flexible is the best skill she gained from her post-secondary education.

“Things happen all the time and you will not predict them . . . Be prepared to change plans, take chances, but trust yourself,” Azan says.

For now, Azan plans to pursue a Master of Arts in Education at the University of Ottawa, but she’s excited to see where her research might lead her in the future.

Spring Convocation is taking place from Monday, June 10 until Friday, June 14. The ceremonies will be broadcast online via live streaming at

Wednesday, May 29, 2019 in
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