Congratulations to our undergraduate valedictorian, James Ashwell!

Posted on Monday, June 7, 2021

James Ashwell

A British Columbian and francophile, James is graduating with an Honours B.Soc.Sc in Economics with French Immersion and Co-op this June. Over the past 5 years, he completed co-op terms at the Canadian Embassy to Germany, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, the Global Affairs Office of the Chief Economist and the International Development Research Centre. He also worked part-time at the Faculty of Social Sciences Mentoring Centre and at the House of Commons as a Page. James was an executive of the Rotaract Club of Ottawa and President of the university’s English Debating Society, and will be representing the university at the World Universities Debating Championship in July.

The Faculty of Social Sciences asked James a few questions about his accomplishment and his experience at the university.

How do you feel about becoming valedictorian?

Definitely a mix of emotions, gratitude and pride first of all because it’s obviously a huge honour to be selected. But I also know there are so many folks in this graduating class who deserve recognition at least as much as I do and who have overcome more than I have. International students who have finished despite the struggle of online classes and exams across time zones, Black students who have had to advocate for their rights while also completing their studies, people with disabilities, Indigenous students, LGBTQ+ students, students who are parents in this pandemic, survivors of sexual assault, low-income and first generation students and more. There are many extremely deserving members of this graduating class, so I’m feeling humbled just to cross the stage (digitally) with them.

What made you want to complete your degree at the Department of Economics at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa?

I was looking for a university that took social sciences seriously, and uOttawa definitely fit the bill. I also knew I wanted to get relevant work experience during my degree, and the co-op program here is unrivalled in terms of the quality of opportunities for social science students. Add to that the opportunities at Parliament and the chance to continue working on my French, and there was really nowhere that offered anything close to what uOttawa offered. Nearly five years later, I can say uOttawa absolutely lived up to my expectations for all those benefits.

Why did you decide to pursue an undergraduate in economics?

The economic systems we choose to operate under distribute not only wealth and income, but also educational opportunities, health outcomes, political power, and so many of the things we care about. I wanted to have the skills and vocabulary to talk about these systems and understand how to do my part to critique and improve them. I’m sure I couldn’t have put it so succinctly when I first got here but that’s at least how I think about it now.

What is your proudest accomplishment while you were studying here?

Receiving the “legacy award” given out by the debate club at the end of this year was definitely one of my most treasured accomplishments. I really benefitted from my time in that club, and I poured a lot of time and energy towards trying to give some of that back. So to be recognized for that work by some of the people I know and respect the most was really special.

What will you remember when thinking of your time at the University of Ottawa?

There are so many good memories I will take away from my time here, but at the same time, I think university has forced me to actually see the “real world” in ways that are important and memorable but not necessarily comfortable. This is a campus where Black students have been repeatedly subjected to carding by campus security, where professors don’t understand that it is wrong to use the n-word in class and make it a point of discussion. Our campus and its classrooms are still not a safe space for so many people, and I think realizing that even a supposedly progressive and inclusive place such as our university still has these issues taught me how important it is to work on these problems at the institutional level and within myself. Student groups like the Black Student Leaders’ Association have provided clear calls to action for our university (such as creating an independent anti-racism office, improving race-based data-collection, and replacing the protection services with a new model for campus safety). Fellow students have also made it clear that people like me who have had the privilege to remain ignorant need to take the time to learn more about these issues and change our behaviour accordingly. So those are lessons from my time at uOttawa that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

Are there any Faculty staff/professors you would like to highlight?

I’ve had so many positive experiences with people on campus especially in the Faculty. The mentoring centres around campus do really important work, everyone involved in delivering and increasing accessibility of mental health services needs to know they are hugely appreciated. The undergraduate program director for economics, Leslie Shiell, is not only a great teacher but has been extremely committed to making the department’s shift online as rigorous yet flexible as possible, so he’s someone that I would absolutely highlight. And there are hundreds of admin folks at all levels that have been working from home to support the transition of literally our entire student experience online; they absolutely deserve our recognition and thanks.

What is next for you?

I’ll be heading to law school in the fall somewhere in Canada. I’m currently interested in labour and employment law, environmental law, and health law, but I’m mostly just looking forward to learning a whole new way of thinking about the world and finding ways to improve it.

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