Each year, we ask our readers to send in their nominations for TC’s Most Influential Tamils List. We’ve narrowed down the nominations to 5 individuals who exemplify personal success, community involvement and act as an inspiration to others. This week we’re featuring Vinitha Gengatharan, Director of International Relations for the University of Toronto and a tremendous champion for community engagement and philanthropy.
Vinitha Gengatharan is the Director, International Relations for the University of Toronto, recently ranked as the top university in Canada and 20th in the world. Her role is integral to advancing the University’s international profile by building partnerships with institutions, governments and industry in the Asia Pacific Region and the Middle East.
Vinitha is also the Chairperson for the Board of Directors at Agincourt Community Services Association, a multi-service agency which she has been actively involved with over the last 5 years, and a member of Charity Ball For Hope, an event-based fundraising team.
Vinitha’s passion for engagement in, and giving back to, her communities locally and abroad began at a young age. She’d always sought out roles that allowed her to make contribution, and when she moved to Canada and found herself at an elementary school full of immigrants from around the world, her global perspective began to take shape.
With the help of a teacher who started a peer mentorship program, Vinitha and her classmates were encouraged to aspire to goals beyond their circumstances and to value community engagement. At 13 she started volunteering with Flemingdon neighbourhood services and was exposed to the idea of the role of community services and social services agencies. She loved the ways in which they helped people and continued to seek out similar experiences.
In her final year of high school, she became involved in the student commission, a leadership conference and national initiative for Canada 125. This exposed Vinitha to student leaders from around the country and the Governor General at the time, Jeanne Sauvé. The lessons she learned about the importance of civic engagement made an unforgettable impression.
At the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) Vinitha studied International Development Studies and Sociology, thinking she’d find herself eventually working in a NGO in the developing world.
Over time she decided that there was much more to be done in Canada and that she could not condone transposing herself somewhere else, only to impose western standards and ways of doing things onto a community.
“You can’t go in and out of a community without being disruptive. What happens after you’ve left? The capacity for the work to continue will not have been built.”
An active member of the student council—eventually becoming one of the very few female presidents—Vinitha helped pass motions that would transform UTSC. What’s more, her engagement in student life had ignited her growing passion for working in higher education.
Following stints at Transamerica and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, her next move would be back to the post secondary environment, in Student Affairs at UTSC. She built the portfolio of the Department of Student Life and created programming that would go on to have a tremendous impact on students. Everything from orientation and transition programs to student groups, international student services and community engagement were influenced by her leadership and vision. Recognized for her successful track record, Vinitha worked closely with campus leadership, from the CAO to the Dean of Student Affairs to the Principal.
After seven years in Student Affairs, when she felt that she had built something she could be proud of, Vinitha felt the tug of wanting to further develop her global perspective, in a role where she could have a larger impact.
“If you want to grow in your career, say yes to every opportunity and seek opportunities beyond where you are. It’s important to put yourself in uncomfortable situations and navigate through uncertain places.”
Though her new position would mean that she'd become a small fish in a big pond and that hardly anyone knew of or cared about her track record, a whole new world had opened up to her. From developing a campus to helping to grow the entire university, the initiatives she worked on and their reach and exposure expanded greatly.
“My focus had become how I was helping Canada advance its competitiveness, and how we could not only achieve our mandate but go beyond what we set out to do.”
As for what the future holds in store for Vinitha, she would love to one day be the Executive Director for a not-for-profit organization. Until then she continues to strive to raise awareness about the importance of sustainable philanthropy through her many roles.
“The people you are helping need to know you’ll be there in the long run. Think about the impact you can make, and whether it is on one or five projects, do it well.”
Here are some of the other TC’s Most Influential Tamils of 2014:
Feature image courtesy of South Asian Dialogue on Rogers TV.