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Leen flips the script: From struggles with economics to mastering the field

Author: Alex Graham

Posted on May 13, 2024

Category: UNB Saint John

Valedictorian Leen

Leen's remarkable journey spans across half the globe, starting in the United Arab Emirates, making a stop in India and culminating at UNBSJ. Her journey is a testament to her dedication to academic excellence and her commitment to understanding and working on complex economic and social issues.

Graduating with a bachelor of arts in economics, with a minor in business, Leen’s focus both inside and outside of academia has been on the impact of economic policies on public health in Atlantic Canada and the North.

Her research has centred on social determinants of health and the impact of racism on health and economic outcomes, with a particular focus on Indigenous and other minority communities.

By providing important research on issues like energy poverty and housing affordability in New Brunswick, Leen has helped shine a light on many of the overlooked communities that feel the real quality of life consequences as a result of policy decisions.

She has also played an active role on campus, as a volunteer at the campus food pantry and as the president of the Women in Business Society. In this role, Leen has helped run skill building seminars covering everything from personal investments to filing taxes and starting a business – demystifying the complex world of finance for those trying to get started in the field.

Leen shared her thoughts on the knowledge and experience she’s gained over the past four years.

Leen, what's your story? How did you end up here today?

I primarily grew up in a boarding school in India which I believe taught me responsibility and independence. After grade 10, I moved back to Dubai to finish high school. Towards the end of grade 12 (AS), I got my first D on an exam. It felt like the end of the world, a D in Economics? I didn’t get Ds. I wanted, more than anything, to give up and accept that the subject just wasn’t for me.

That's when Miss Kalgi, my incredible Economics teacher, stepped in. She saw me falling apart and wouldn't let me give up. She squeezed in tutoring sessions between classes, even answering the hundreds of practice questions I sent her outside of school hours. She genuinely believed I could succeed and that meant everything.

I didn't just pass that exam, I did well. Miss Kalgi's dedication completely changed my perspective on economics and it showed me the immense impact a great teacher can have. Finding professors who would be invested in my success became my top priority when applying to university. So, I took a chance and emailed some professors at different universities. Thankfully, Barry Watson and Rob Moir were among those I reached out to, and they not only responded, but they were incredibly kind and helpful.

The personalized touch from them really stood out – no other university offered that kind of interaction. UNB was also a great fit financially, making it the perfect choice.

Tell me more about your values. How do they align with your goals and vision for the future?

Discipline, perseverance and compassion are the cornerstones of my values. Discipline acts as the foundation, allowing me to focus on long-term goals. Imagine a garden – to cultivate a thriving space, consistent care and dedicated effort are essential. Discipline provides that structure, ensuring I prioritize the activities that make my goals blossom.

Perseverance is the water that nourishes that garden. There will be setbacks and moments of doubt, but perseverance keeps me pushing forward. It's the unwavering commitment that sees me through challenging coursework or the grit required to master a new skill.

Finally, compassion serves as the sunshine that allows everything to flourish. It's the guiding principle behind my desire to experience a more equitable world. I feel everyone deserves the opportunity to reach their full potential, and compassion compels me to use my knowledge and future career to identify and promote bridging the gaps in opportunity. Compassion motivates me to make a positive contribution to the lives of others.

These values are not just separate entities; they work together. Discipline allows me to persevere through challenges and perseverance strengthens my resolve to act with compassion.

How did your UNB experience support or help shape those values?

Looking back on my time at UNB, I am filled with gratitude for the support provided by my professors. They offered guidance on jobs and grad school applications when I needed it and their belief in me ignited a confidence, I never knew I had.

Professors Watson and Moir were instrumental in shaping my academic and personal growth. Their mentorship and inspiration empowered me to push myself beyond the limits I had set for myself. Whenever I was unsure, I knew I had a support system and people to turn to who had my best interests at heart.

Without their encouragement, my journey would have been different. UNB created an environment that allowed professors like Dr. Watson and Dr. Moir to have such a significant impact. Nothing beats the benefits of small class sizes. I got the opportunity of more one-on-one time, deeper engagement with class materials, and to shine – to see my peers shine and get to know them as people whom I can root for. I'm proud of the quality of education I received at UNB, and I feel ready to face my next milestones.

What memory stands out the most from your time at UNB?

One memory that truly stands out from my time at UNB is the Women in Business Society conference I helped organize.

It was a moment of reflection for me, realizing the impact a group of passionate students could have. We started with just a vision and managed to pull it together while balancing all our courses and jobs.

It wasn’t easy – securing sponsorships from local companies, booking speakers to come in and speak about relevant topics for students, and bringing the entire community together – but the support we received from professors and the university was phenomenal. Seeing it all come to life, and the impact it had on attendees, was incredibly rewarding.

Do you have any advice or words you live by that you’d like to share?

Sure, I have a couple of things that guide me. One is the idea of picking your battles. Life can be pretty overwhelming, so I try to focus my energy on the things that are truly important. It's like having a limited amount of fuel – you want to make sure you're using it for the things that will really drive you forward and letting go of distractions that might sap my energy.

Another one is about embracing a growth mindset. There's always something new to discover, and I find it keeps me motivated and engaged.

Finally, I try to live by the motto 'the worst they can say is no.'" This has helped me be a lot more proactive. You'd be surprised how often people say yes when you ask!

We miss out on so much by holding back because of fear. When you’re not the decision-maker, don’t pre-disqualify yourself for a new opportunity. So, I put myself out there, whether it’s asking for a new opportunity at work or simply striking up a conversation with someone interesting.

What’s next?

After graduation, my next step is to pursue an MA in Economics and eventually obtain my PhD. While I continue with my education, I plan to work part-time in various positions to try and figure out what sort of work interests me.

I want to be an expert in my field, a noteworthy contributor among the scholars I’ve read about for years. At UBC, I’ll be working under some incredible scholars to complete a thesis.

Otherwise, I’m not too concerned about where that will take me. I believe in outlining my long-term goals rather than setting them in stone and I want to remain flexible. I don’t need to have it all figured out today!

What are your summer plans? What are you doing for yourself outside of your academic life?

I've got a pretty exciting summer lined up! I'm taking a trip to the Caribbean with some friends for a week. We're going to soak up some sun and relax on the beach.

Then, my parents are coming out for graduation, so I'm looking forward to showing them around a bit. We'll visit Saint John, Kingston and maybe even Saint Martins - I want to show them the cool parts of where I've been living!

After that, I'm heading back to Dubai with them for a while. I plan to spend as much time as I can on the beaches and catching up with my friends.

The big thing on the horizon, though, is moving to Vancouver! Me and my friends are toying with the idea of a giant road trip from Saint John all the way out there.

Leen will deliver her valedictory address in Saint John on Friday, May 17 at 2 p.m.