Connections and Community: The First Gilson Cohort Graduates from UofT

Image depicts Principal Randy Boyagoda teaching a seminar in the Shook common room
Dr. Randy Boyagoda has taught first-year students in the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas since it was introduced in 2017.

When University of Toronto Vice-Dean, Undergraduate Randy Boyagoda introduced the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas in 2017, he had two hopes for what his students would take from the seminar into their larger careers at UofT.  

“First, an openness to making connections beyond specialized fields of study and knowledge,” the former St. Michael’s Principal says. His second hope for his students? “Friends.”  

Four years later, as the first Gilson Seminar cohort prepares to graduate from the University of Toronto, it’s clear that creative links between disciplines and a deep sense of community are exactly what his students carried forward from the program.    

Inspired by the Catholic intellectual tradition and designed for first-year students, the SMC One seminar explores questions related to faith and ecology, science, literature and politics, and includes readings that draw from ancient philosophy, contemporary fiction, and everything in between.  

A large group of students in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City
The first Gilson Seminar cohort in St. Peter’s Square during the international learning experience.

The two-week international learning experience in Rome complements the seminar’s coursework with site-specific talks and tours around the ancient city while exploring roles the Catholic Church and the Vatican have played in a variety of fields.  

“It’s how to integrate all the different parts of your life,” says Gilson grad Samantha Ramphal, when asked about her main takeaway from the program. “I was studying the sciences and saw my faith as separate,” she continues, but “taking Gilson helped me realize there’s one truth and it must be coherent with all other aspects of your career and personal life.”  

Her classmate Jordan Chiappetta had a difficult time narrowing down a favourite memory, but calls out the group’s visit to the Vatican Observatory during the trip to Rome as a highlight. “It was such a special privilege that I don’t think I would have ever been able to experience had I not been a St. Mike’s student,” he says.   

Image depicts the inside of the Vatican Observatory
During a visit to the Vatican Observatory, the cohort received a tour from Dr. Adam Hincks, SJ, who is now the Sutton Family Chair in Science, Christianity and Cultures at St. Michael’s.

“Gilson helped me find myself both academically and personally,” Natalie Barbuzzi says. Beyond cultivating her interest in eco-theology—a field she will pursue via a Master’s of Theological Studies program in St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology in the fall—Barbuzzi credits Gilson with providing her with a sense of close-knit community in the larger university setting. While she developed important friendships through “dodgeball and meatballs,” a regular gathering Professor Boyagoda hosted for Gilson students, she also became deeply involved in student life at St. Michael’s via the Commuter Don program, Orientation, and Mentorship.  

Emily Barber started writing for The Mike while participating in the seminar, and found a community dedicated to sharing and exploring ideas in a similarly wide-ranging fashion to that of her Gilson classmates. Her studies in English led to an independent study on the poet T.S. Eliot during her final year with three other Gilson students—guided by Professor Boyagoda. She will continue her studies this fall in an MA program in English Literature at McGill.  

“I was able to find such a respect and gratitude within Gilson,” Barber says. “I think we all just feel really close because even though we’re all quite different, we have this common respect for each other.”  

Ramphal echoes her classmate. “As an international student from Trinidad coming to school in Canada, it felt like such a far-fetched dream” to participate in the seminar, she says.  

“For first year students to have this experience in such a close-knit community and pursue these friendships while beginning studies is fantastic, really unique to this college, and something I’m grateful to have been a part of.” 

Mike Czobit is the director of the Office of the Principal, and the coordinator of SMC One. Before joining St. Michael’s in 2017, he was an editor and writer at World Vision Canada.

There Will Be Cake 

Photograph of a cake with a fondant beret on top

Every year, before the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas meets for its first lecture in September, we have an opening reception and something we call the “Beret’ing In.” To the tune of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” each incoming Gilson Seminar student approaches the lectern in Charbonnel Lounge and receives a black beret, officially joining the seminar. After every student has been beret’ed in, cake is served—a special kind of cake: raspberry beret cake.

This tradition is a night of fun and introductions before the hard work of the Gilson Seminar begins. The course, which is split into two half-term classes over the course of the year, is one of three first-year seminars offered by St. Michael’s College as part of our SMC One program. The other two seminars are the McLuhan Seminar in Creativity and Technology and the Boyle Seminar in Scripts and Stories.

These seminars are among the most popular first-year courses at the University of Toronto, owing to a number of factors. For example, each is taught by a member of our talented St. Michael’s faculty in a small class setting that fosters fascinating discussions and close friendships with fellow classmates, and each features an international learning experience. In the Boyle Seminar, students are invited to travel to Dublin after the April exam period. A trip to Silicon Valley takes place during reading week for the McLuhan Seminar. And the Gilson Seminar’s second half-course has its destination in its title: The Gilson Seminar in Faith and Rome.

For most people, international travel these days has been ruled out for health and safety reasons, and for the impracticality of visiting a country when it likely requires a quarantine upon arrival. But, back in February, before the present conditions of international travel took hold, there still was the possibility to go to Rome or Dublin. In fact, that was the plan for both the Gilson and Boyle classes (the McLuhan Seminar had traveled to Silicon Valley last November, before anyone here had really heard of the virus).

In the Principal’s Office, we are responsible for organizing all three SMC One trips. Throughout January and February, we proceeded as usual, preparing students by holding Safety Abroad workshops, requesting traveler information, and making airfare arrangements. We worked with our partners in Dublin and Rome to finalize details for each trip, and in the case of Rome, arranged for tickets for the Pope’s Wednesday Audience. Everything was proceeding as it had every year, except, as everyone knows now, this wouldn’t be a normal year.

By late February, my office was paying particular attention to reports of COVID-19 cases emerging worldwide. When the first few cases surfaced in northern Italy, we were concerned but hopeful that the country would get control of the virus. Reflecting on that now makes me realize how little we all knew and how naïve my optimism was. Day by day, in early March, the number of infected patients rose. Not just in Europe, but also at home. These developments worried our SMC One students, who began asking my office questions about the safety of our planned trips. At the time, we honestly didn’t know what the virus would mean, but we assured our students that safety would be paramount and that the trips could be postponed. Then, on March 12 that happened. The University decided that due to safety concerns, all student travel would be postponed until further notice. This was the right decision.

After we unwound the arrangements for the planned trips, my office had a different task to attend to, which was to start recruiting for next year’s SMC One seminars. When we promote these classes, we do the opposite of shying away from discussing their travel components. But during this recruitment period, getting on a plane to go somewhere far away seemed like the least desirable thing to do. At the same time, the 2020–21 SMC One seminars were months away and the situation in March would change—and, to be optimistic, be much, much better.

We pushed forward with our recruitment effort, inviting incoming U of T students to apply for a spot in our seminars. We expected that we would struggle to fill the classes. We expected that SMC One would have lost its popularity. What happened was something different.

When the application window closed on June 15, we had received the highest number of applications for SMC One in the three years their present format has existed. In fact, we doubled the total number of applications over our previous best. Our incoming students were not deterred by news reports of the virus or of how international travel will never be the same. They reacted to the closing of borders with a greater desire to see them open again. What they want, and what classes such as SMC One will provide, is a return to better times when a desire to explore and experience life and culture in different parts of the world can enrich a university education.

As the new academic year begins, we have begun planning for our SMC One classes. Different this year is that all three will take place in the Winter term, with the hope that all will be able to be in-person or have a larger in-person component than is safe in the Fall term. It is too early to know what international travel will look like in 2021, but we’re hopeful that conditions will improve.

Every year, the Gilson Seminar begins with berets and cakes. We hope to see this tradition resume in this coming year’s Gilson class. And when the cake is finally served, it will have the double meaning: welcoming a new class to St. Michael’s College and also celebrating how far we’ve come through difficult times. When we began our recruitment effort for SMC One in the spring, we were pessimistic about our prospects of filling these classes. Our students showed we should have felt otherwise.

Read other InsightOut posts.

A shot from behind a group of students as they walk between columns strewn with vines in Italy.
Students in SMC One seminars travel to Rome, Ireland, and Silicon Valley for intensive international learning experiences.

Providing a unique bridge from high school to university, St. Michael’s popular SMC One seminars are now accepting applications for the 2020-2021 academic year.

The Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas, the Boyle Seminar in Scripts and Stories, and the McLuhan Seminar in Creativity and Technology draw new students into close-knit learning communities that personalize the student experience at UofT.

“The SMC One seminars are among the most sought-after courses for first-year students at the University of Toronto. With small class sizes, discussions led by leading scholars and superb teachers, and unparalleled opportunities for intensive international learning experiences, these courses provide an excellent introduction to university-level studies,” St. Michael’s Principal Randy Boyagoda says.

The seminar format creates a supportive and dynamic environment in which new students are empowered to develop important academic skills they will rely on throughout their academic careers. The programs also draw from the historic interdisciplinary strengths of St. Michael’s sponsored programs.

St. Michael's Principal Randy Boyagoda teaches the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas in the Shook Common Room.
St. Michael’s Principal Randy Boyagoda teaches the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas.

The Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas

“SMC Ones emerge out of the distinct resources and traditions of St. Michael’s, which professors and students together placed in dialogue with the leading currents of thought and practice today,” Professor Boyagoda says.

He teaches the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas, which explores the intersection of faith with today’s most important questions. Students research and discuss issues in ecology, science, literature, social justice, and politics with reference to the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Graphic novels, memoirs, theological tracts, papal encyclicals and literary novels fuel wide-ranging conversations in both the main seminar and smaller tutorials, and the class culminates with a spring trip to Rome. There, students have the opportunity to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Observatory, and other world-famous religious and cultural sites.

“The Gilson community became a family,” third-year St. Michael’s student Taylor Medeiros writes of her own experience in the seminar.  “While on the trip, I fell in love with Roman art, architecture, and gelato. I never expected that I would fall in love with the liberal arts, too.”

Assistant Professor Alison More helps a Boyle Seminar student to prepare a quill pen in the manner of mediaeval monks.
Assistant Professor Alison More helps a Boyle Seminar student to prepare a quill pen in the manner of mediaeval monks. (Watch the seminar’s how-to video.)

The Boyle Seminar in Scripts and Stories

A key theme of education at St. Michael’s is the union of theoretical learning and practical knowledge. Bringing together two of St. Michael’s sponsored programs, Mediaeval Studies and Celtic Studies, the Boyle Seminar in Scripts and Stories equips students to study the history of knowledge preservation in the mediaeval era while also giving them hands-on experience in the practices of mediaeval knowledge transmission.

“We spend quite a lot of time talking about ‘how do we go from cow to page?’” says assistant professor Máirtín Coilféir, who co-teaches the course with fellow assistant professor Alison More. After learning how monks in a scriptorium approached the production of manuscripts, Boyle students have an opportunity to cut, finish, and write with their own feather quill pens – just as the monks did.

Boyle Seminar participants also receive hands-on experience with medieval manuscripts, a rare opportunity for first-year students to touch the past. The seminar’s May trip to Ireland includes visits to ancient cultural sites and an active archaeological dig, where students can touch artifacts that are fresh out of the ground.

Students in the McLuhan Seminar pose during a video about their trip to Silicon Valley in the fall of 2019.
Students in the McLuhan Seminar visit tech companies, foundations, and museums on a trip to Silicon Valley. Watch the recap video of the fall 2019 trip.

The McLuhan Seminar in Creativity and Technology

Named for Marshall McLuhan, one of St. Michael’s most famous professors, the McLuhan Seminar in Creativity and Technology encourages students to turn a humanistic lens on the world of science and technology. Assistant Professor Paolo Granata, a scholar of McLuhan’s work, introduces student participants to leaders in the tech world while constantly posing the question: how does creativity make innovation possible?

“The McLuhan Seminar is designed for students who want to develop an awareness of the relationship between creativity and technology, and who want to know how that relationship impacts both individuals and broader culture and society,” professor Granata says. “It cultivates interdisciplinary and critical thinking, and suggests how creativity and technology can be embedded in everyday practices as well as in large-scale societal processes.”

Students in the McLuhan Seminar get to know the figures who put Silicon Valley on the map through their world-changing ideas and products before decamping to the Valley for a one-week international learning experience. A whirlwind itinerary takes participants to LinkedIn, the Mozilla Foundation, the Google Plex, and networking events to meet innovators and leaders who are determining the shape of our digital future.

By Michael Czobit

The problem with summarizing the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Rome is trying to limit yourself to one favourite part of this two-week intensive international learning experience.

There was, for instance, the private tour that Seminar members received of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls with the Basilica’s Archpriest, Cardinal James Harvey. It was certainly out of the ordinary that the Basilica’s Archpriest would show a group of 38 students around, pointing out artistic and architectural details and explaining the otherwise unknowable history of St. Paul Outside the Walls. It wouldn’t have been possible without a connection that USMC alumnus George Weigel made between the Cardinal and the students.

That was a favourite, for sure, but what about the tour of the Vatican City Necropolis and visit to St. Peter’s tomb? Those were encounters with deep and rich history that reinforced the continuous importance of St. Peter to the Church, and of scholarly inquiry into his life in Rome.

Those are two favourites, and we wouldn’t mention another except that visiting the Vatican Observatory was unforgettable. The visit included a tour of the Observatory’s telescopes and a lecture on faith and science from Adam Hincks, SJ, a USMC alumnus and Jesuit seminarian who now works at the Observatory following his doctoral studies in Astrophysics at Princeton. Adam’s lecture was as intellectually challenging as it was engaging, and students were still discussing it on the way to the Vatican Museums that evening.

Another favourite; another superlative. The problem with summarizing the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Rome is trying to limit yourself to even a dozen favourites.

This trip to Rome took place in May 2018. It expanded on what students learned in the fall edition of the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas. The trip was led by St. Michael’s Principal Professor Randy Boyagoda, Gilson Postdoctoral Fellows Peter O’Hagan and Rebekah Lamb, and the Gilson Seminar Chaplain, Rev. Kevin Belgrave, a professor of Moral Theology at St. Augustine’s Seminary and a priest of the Archdiocese of Toronto. The class stayed at the Villa Palazzola, a residence dating to the thirteenth century located in the hills outside of the city.

In one of his introductory lectures, Professor Boyagoda reminded students that by traveling to Rome, they were joining the tradition of those who had come to the city before them—a tradition that had been popularized in novels such as E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, which was on the class syllabus. Guided by Virgil, André Aciman, Benedict XVI, and by a world-renowned scholar long associated with the College and the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Rev. Leonard Boyle (whose work was also on the syllabus), the Gilson Seminar was an exploration of Rome in search of deeper meaning, beyond the Eternal City you’d see in a postcard.

“It was so interesting to be in a global classroom,” says Breanna Veneruz, a Human Biology student from Thunder Bay, Ont. “Lectures were not typical,” she says, “which made the experience so rewarding as I learned more than I ever could in a lecture hall.”

Other students expanded on Breanna’s “more”: “My first year at university was overwhelming,” says Samantha Ramphal, a Pearson Scholar from Trinidad and Tobago studying Life Sciences. “It was a huge transition from high school and adapting to the new environment and workload was a challenge. However, the Gilson Seminar made the adjustment significantly smoother.”

At the end of the Seminar, Professor Boyagoda explained how his idea for the Seminar grew from the experience his wife Anna had as an undergraduate at the University of Dallas. She had stayed in Rome for a semester, which was a transformational experience for her. Professor Boyagoda said he hoped the students’ experience of their 11-day seminar in Rome would have a similar lasting effect, helping to inform their way of thinking as they progress through their undergraduate studies and into adulthood.

In his closing remarks to the students, Professor Boyagoda referred to the defining themes of the Rome Seminar—faith and ideas—and then added a third, friendship. The students agreed. “The Seminar is where I have formed my closest friendships at UofT,” says Nicole Lim, a Bioinformatics and Computational Biology student from Singapore. She adds that the seminar “has given me so many precious experiences that I will cherish throughout my life.”

Echoing Nicole, Nicholas Pagano, who plans to study Mathematics and Neuroscience, says, “The experience is one that I will value and cherish, thanks to the strong relationships built and opportunities provided.”

One such moment of deeper meaning occurred in the Sistine Chapel. The class entered together and gazed up at Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, a fresco that each student had written about in essay applications to the Seminar. Twelve months later they saw it in person, and, in a way, closed a circle. But after a year of the Gilson Seminar, the circle had a much larger circumference. It included all that the students had learned and discussed from the first lectures and tutorials in the fall to their time in Rome. It was a year’s worth of learning and thinking and growing, all of it coming to a meaningful conclusion: one last favourite in a trip that was full of them.

Michael Czobit is the Director of the Office of the Principal and Vice-President.