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International students studying at Lassonde reconnect far from home

Andrea Ngasha Tayebwa and Adren Reuel Singh

By Elaine Smith

This story originally appeared in YFile.

It’s a happy coincidence that Andrea Ngasha Tayebwa and Adren Reuel Singh, who graduated together from high school in Kampala, Uganda, find themselves on campus at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering this fall, both studying engineering.

Singh applied to York’s computer engineering program and planned to arrive for the fall 2021 semester, but York was still in pandemic lockdown and classes were online, so he did a semester remotely. When classes resumed in person during the winter of 2022, he encountered visa problems, so he didn’t arrive until fall 2022. Meanwhile, Tayebwa took a gap year after high school, applying to York for a President’s International Scholarship of Excellence. She received the scholarship and also arrived on campus in time for the fall 2022 semester.

“We had lost touch after graduation, so I expected Andrea to go to Montreal to study, since she has family there,” Singh said. “I texted her before I came to Canada and found out she was at York. She took me shopping and helped me settle in and we explored campus together. Now, we keep in touch and hang out when we have time.”

Tayebwa knew Singh was heading to York, but she hadn’t originally planned to come here, too.

“I read the Lassonde School of Engineering information and I was drawn to it,” she said. “I applied and got in. I came a week earlier than Reuel, and we helped each other settle in. It has been nice to have someone from close to home here.”

Both students were deliberate in their choice of Canada as the place to pursue a post-secondary education.

“I had come to Canada once and liked how different it was from back home,” Tayebwa said. “A lot of universities come to Kampala for university fairs and I was drawn to Canada. It is more diverse and more welcoming to international students than many countries, and it’s a safe place.

Singh said, “I found York on a list of the Top 10 universities in Canada. I was accepted at three of them and had to make a decision. I chose York because of Lassonde’s up-to-date curriculum. They are mindful of morals and ethics and I like that they feel the responsibility to train engineers the right way.”

Choosing computer engineering made sense to Singh, who has been programming since the age of 10 and is already a full stack developer who creates apps, websites and software. While in high school, he created an online voting system for school elections, PolliFy, which is still being used five years later. He has also created an app called Seizafe that analyzes YouTube videos to determine whether or not they might trigger an epileptic seizure and creates a warning for users. He was inspired to design the app, which is endorsed by the British Epilepsy Society, after a high school classmate suffered a fatal seizure during a debate team trip.

“I get emails thanking me, which is heartwarming,” Singh said. “I want people to benefit. I have a yearning to leave a mark in the world.”

For Tayebwa, the decision to become a civil engineer grew out of her interest in math and physics and her determination to do something for her country.

“Our infrastructure isn’t as developed as it is here,” she said. “It’s an area of study that I thought would be useful back home. Eventually, I want to return and help out.

“In the context of my course, I love how the engineering classes [at York] are up to date as current world issues are incorporated into the course and I love the emphasis on collaboration as well as experiential learning. I believe I’m picking up skills such as problem-solving, leadership and creativity that will serve me well as I pursue civil engineering.” 

The pair is taking classes together during the winter term since all first-year engineering students take basic courses together. Singh took electives last semester to be in sync with the other engineers in his cohort.

“Lassonde is attracting talent from all over the world and currently has students from over 130 different countries,” said Jane Goodyer, dean of the Lassonde School of Engineering, after meeting the pair at the President’s International Student Reception, an event organized by York International. “But it’s a small world! We were talking and, when I discovered they were both from Uganda, I didn’t do the obvious and ask if they knew each other. Then, they told me they were from the same high school and the same graduating class, but didn’t realize they were both coming to York. What are the odds of coming all those thousands of kilometres and having someone from home there?” The reception was also an opportunity for the university to celebrate international scholarship winners, like Tayebwa.

Woo Kim, Director of International Student & Scholar Services for York International, said, “Events like the President’s International Student Reception, gives York an opportunity to welcome international students and celebrate the richness and diversity they have to offer our University community.”

The scholarship is an honour that makes Tayebwa proud. “I knew I would hear in late March or early April,” she said. “Even though I felt qualified, I knew it was about luck to some extent, so I just prayed.”

The email informing her that she’d won a President’s International Scholarship arrived on April 1 and Tayebwa didn’t believe it.

“I thought it was probably some April Fool’s joke, but it said to check my online York account, and there was the letter, originally dated March 23. I called my mom and we celebrated.”

Now that they are in Toronto, Tayebwa and Singh are enjoying the campus, getting involved in extracurricular activities and making new friends. However, they plan to keep in close touch.

“Seeing Andrea feels like a piece of home,” Singh said.