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Growing up Muslim

A Q&A with alumnus and Newfoundlander Aatif Baskanderi

Campus and Community |

By Lisa Pendergast

Rural Newfoundland and Labrador is not normally known for its diversity.

However, one man who grew up as a Muslim in Clarenville, N.L., credits the community for a fantastic, inclusive childhood that helped him become the successful innovator he is today.

Aatif Baskanderi, B.Eng.’08, MTM’15, has been all around the world and during his education and career has worked in the areas of high tech, natural resources and policy. His current role is commercialization manager at Innovate Calgary, in Calgary, Alta., where he focuses on getting new energy technologies and business models successfully to market. Despite many moves and now living happily in Calgary, he still considers Newfoundland and Labrador home.

Mr. Baskanderi recently wrapped up a speaking tour in Newfoundland and Labrador titled Salaam B’y: A Story of a Muslim Newfoundlander, a personal account of growing up as a Muslim in the province and the subject of an upcoming documentary.

LP: Tell me a little about yourself, where you’re from and your career path to date.

AB: My parents moved from Pakistan to Canada in the early ’70s. I was born in Ontario and moved to Clarenville when I was five, moved to Vancouver, B.C., when I was 10 and back to Clarenville when I was 15. So, I have moved from ocean to ocean! I graduated high school in 2001 and then attended Memorial, where I studied engineering.

After graduating from the co-op program I went to work for Blackberry, which was also my last co-op work term. I accepted a full-time job with them and worked there for a few years.

I’ve always been interested in the connection between social justice and engineering, so I then decided to do a master’s degree in social policy and development at the London School of Economics. I lived in the U.K. for a year, and after that I moved to Sierra Leone to do a project there and eventually returned to Canada and worked in the world of science policy. I worked for a think tank and for the British government, and now I’m with an innovation accelerator in Calgary.

LP: What did you enjoy most about being a student in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science? Is there a particular moment or experience that stands out?

AB: Fail is usually a word that no one wants to say. In my third year of engineering, I failed an advanced programming class. The way it works in engineering is if you fail a class and have less than a 60 per cent average, you are considered to have failed that semester and you have to wait a year to re-enter the program. I remember as a student in those early years, I was struggling to make it. I went to appeal my failure, as every student does when they fail, and the dean of engineering said, “Let me ask you one question. If I were to let you through, would this experience change how you engage with your engineering education?” Any student would say, “Yes, of course,” but I really thought about it and honestly, I didn’t know if it would change anything. So, my appeal did not go through, I failed and waited a year to come back.

The time gave me a chance to really reflect and ask myself if I really wanted to do engineering. I was one of those guys who did great in math and physics in high school and everyone told me I should study engineering, but I was never certain it was the right fit. It took that experience of failure to really ignite my passion for engineering. I went from a student who was constantly struggling to someone who was at the top of my class for the rest of my time in engineering. Once I was able to figure out why I wanted to do engineering and once I figured out a study system that worked for me, it became easy. And I went on to do two master’s degrees after that!

LP: How has your time at Memorial influenced your career?

AB: It is very complex how my time at Memorial informed my career path. I work in the field of innovation, which is a very fluffy term, but at the end of the day it’s about finding new and diverse ideas and using them to solve a problem. During my time at Memorial, I think doing interdisciplinary activities other than engineering was equally valuable to me. I took several courses in social studies, social sciences and religious studies, which allowed me to operate with many diverse skill sets and bring them together to form innovative ideas. This is critical in my field. How do you get people from different backgrounds, and in different disciplines, to work together on a common objective? That is something I started dabbling with at Memorial by combining these elective courses with engineering. That background really helped me get into the innovation space.

LP: Can you tell me more about your current project, Salaam B’y: A Story of a Muslim Newfoundlander?

AB: I’m doing an homage to Newfoundland and Labrador! I’ve travelled around the world and met many people and they would always say that there was something different about me. I looked back to try and figure out what that was, and I believe that growing up in Newfoundland helped form me as the person I am, including my personality and my profession.

My intent is to come back to Newfoundland to show my appreciation. All of the towns I chose for my tour are towns that my good friends came from. These towns produced people who became close friends, who are more like family, and these people helped form me, as well.

I also wanted to show that Newfoundland value of embracing inclusion. Growing up in Newfoundland was fantastic — I never felt like I didn’t belong or like I wasn’t a part of the community. Which I believe is an important message to put out there right now.

LP: What advice would you give to a current or future student at Memorial?

AB: I would say connect with as many people as you can and explore as many subject areas as you can. Don’t feel the need to stay in a silo. A university is probably one of the only venues in the world where you can engage with this much diversity, in terms of people from different backgrounds and interests. A university campus is a microcosm for the world. As soon as you leave university, you never again find that same venue where you can meet so many people and share that university connection.

Go up to as many people as you can, go to as many events as possible and learn about societies on campus that you have never heard of before. You can visit new courses and sit in on a class. That was something I did a lot, visiting random courses just to see what they were talking about. It was fantastic! Going to university allows you to see the entire world in one square kilometre.

Read more here to learn about Aatif Baskanderi’s story and speaking tour, Salaam B’y: A Story of a Muslim Newfoundlander.

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