Kelowna Women in Business: WISE Women helping university students

"From the moment Nishat Tasnim begins to speak, her remarkable cocktail of kindness, intelligence and moxie shines."

From the moment Nishat Tasnim begins to speak, her remarkable cocktail of kindness, intelligence and moxie shines.

She’s careful to point out her hometown of Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh and to place the country beside India on the off chance those around her aren’t geography buffs or travellers.

This natural ability to accommodate others’ needs without being asked is a rare trait; it’s easy to see why she was recommended for the International Leaders of Tomorrow full-ride scholarship which brought her to the University of British Columbia Okanagan.

Her choice of campus requires a little explanation given Kelowna’s proximity, a seemingly small-town off the beaten path, for an international student with academic ambitions.

“I think for me the best part of UBCO, over the Vancouver campus, was the more close-knit community. I like what it offered in terms of the landscape and the location, the topography,” she said.

A biology major in her third year, Tasnim embodies the term community leader, transitioning from student body president in Dhaka to a university organizer who tries to volunteer every day in her new Canadian home, whether it’s by organizing present wrapping at Christmas or helping at the Kelowna Community Food Bank over the summer.

This penchant to help seems innate, but it’s also a conscious decision stemming from a connection with winemaker Karen Gillis, a mentor who helped highlight how critical each moment of her university career is and the importance of making it count.

Volunteering is part of this equation for Tasnim.

“It’s grounded in gratitude and a responsibility I feel I need to hold up,” she explained. “The university has given me a big opportunity and I want to do what I can do to deserve such a great opportunity.”

Tasnim’s quest to get involved started well before she arrived on campus when she began corresponding with one of her first-year professors, Trudy Kavanagh, a senior instructor in physical geography who was teaching a course on the flora and fauna of the area.

Kavanagh heads the organizing committee for the Women in Science and Engineering Mentoring Program and knew Tasnim would thrive under the tutelage of a successful female leader from her new community.

The WISE program was created three years ago to connect young women in both faculties with women who work in the field. It provides guidance and support for students and ensures each young woman leaves the university with a background to succeed.

“What makes our program different than any other in the world, I believe, is that it’s the only one with a longitudinal study that accompanies it,” said Kavanagh. “…The intent is to track them now to improve the program, because we get feedback on what’s working and what isn’t, and to see what impact the program has on the participants both in the immediate term, on their academics, and on their future career development.”

In December 2010, Kavanagh was among the group who applied for funding from Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology. Overseen by Elizabeth Croft, Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada chairwoman for women in science and engineering, the fund is intended to help promote science and engineering as an excellent career choice for women, and other under-represented groups, and to help identify and eliminate barriers that result in attrition from these career paths.

The tri-mentoring concept used by WISE fits perfectly. Each mentor gets a junior and a senior mentee. Typically students in second year are considered the junior and those in third or fourth year, the senior.

The group meets as a trio so the students have the benefit of each others’ knowledge as well as the leader from the community.

In Tasnim’s case, her mentors included Gillis, winemaker for Red Rooster, and Susan Lapp, a consultant working in watershed management.

Tasnim describes both women as friends she could look up to—Gillis for her honest, tough, high-energy approach to life and Lapp for her incredible ability to listen.

From the outset, their guidance and encouragement helped her get involved in campus life and the wider community and she is learning to articulate and identify the areas of expertise each experience she tackles develops.

“I think where Nishat really blossomed was in realizing that the skills she was acquiring in university were really applicable to a job,” said Lapp. “She was worried that she was doing all this research and doing odd jobs for profs at the university and that might be a constraint to future employment.

“So we were able to identify how that applies to getting a job down the line and develop her CV.”

WISE holds workshops and panel discussions on everything from work-life balance to professionalism.

The program does battle to find mentors as women are often so busy balancing career and family and struggle to find time to volunteer. Prospective mentors can connect with the program at

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