Lassonde Student & International Explorer Tonny Lay Visits the Middle East
Earlier this month, Lassonde student Tonny Lay was one of a select group of Canadian students chosen to take part in the Next Gen Community Leaders program.
The newly-established initiative is an experiential learning experience for Canadian student leaders. This is organized by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of Jewish life in Canada.
This year’s cohort included participants who are connected to or active in East Asian or South Asian communities. The program includes pre-and post-trip seminars, a seven-day study program in Israel, and a post-trip written assignment or creative project on a topic related to the program.
Tonny Lay is a fourth-year Lassonde student enrolled in the combined Engineering & International Development Studies program offered by Lassonde in partnership with York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.
He is a founding member of the School’s Engineers Without Borders Chapter and an executive in the Lassonde Engineering Society. In 2014, he also took part in Lassonde’s three-week summer intensive entrepreneurship program which takes place at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel.
Upon his return, Tonny shared his experiences and the highlights of his trip with Lassonde.
What was the most important thing you learned during your trip?
The most powerful lesson for me is to be open-minded and to be wary of assumptions based on what you might read or see from afar. You really need to make up your own mind based on your own perspective and constantly challenge yourself to find out more.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extremely complex with a variety of perspectives on the past, the present and the future. It is not a subject that can or should be approached lightly or with too many pre-existing assumptions.
During the program, I had the opportunity to hear from various different speakers in Israel who spoke passionately about the political, cultural, social, and economic issues in the region
I also had the chance to hear the equally passionate views of a Palestinian journalist and the founder of a Palestinian startup.
In the age of sound bytes, YouTube clips and 140-character tweets, it’s even more essential to cut through the noise out there to hear from different people on the ground who have direct experience and not just take part in abstract discussions about the rights and wrongs of disputed issues.
Why did you decide to participate in this program?
I am fascinated by the politics of the Middle East. As a student leader, I have always sought to listen to the views of a cross-section of people who may see the same issue differently. This trip was a great opportunity for me to expand my knowledge outside of the classroom. I was intrigued by the chance to hear the stories of so many different people who are affected day-to-day by this ongoing conflict including Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis and Palestinians.
Aside from the politics, it gave me an incredible chance to build relationships with other student leaders from across Canada and those that I met in Israel.
What were some of the most memorable activities during your time in Israel?
When I look back on the trip, the experience that always pops up first in my mind is riding in an armoured diplomatic vehicle into Ramallah. One of the speakers we were to meet was unable to meet us in Jerusalem, and so we met them at the Canadian Representative Office to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah instead. It was very different from my typical commute to school.
Apart from this, every day was filled with informative and interesting experiences. One moment we were visiting the Golan Heights and another moment we were talking to local Israelis about their experiences of military service.
How has studying both Computer Engineering and International Development given you a unique perspective?
Studying in my program has allowed me to understand the consequences technology has on geopolitics. Although this trip focused mostly on political topics, we still had a chance to visit tech start-ups, discuss the engineering challenges for both Israelis and Palestinians, and explore the potential for technological breakthroughs to benefit everyone in the region.
What does being a Renaissance Engineer mean to you?
To me, a Renaissance Engineer has the ability to change the world. A Renaissance Engineer is altruistic and has the foresight to see the impact of his work on humanity both in a global and local context. As an engineer, it is important to not only focus on technical skills but to also understand why we choose to create the things we do.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Ten years is a long time. I see myself moving among different fields depending on where my passion takes me. I am currently split between seeing myself at a healthcare firm specializing in biotechnology or biomedical devices or being involved with an organization, such as Engineers Without Borders, finding systemic solutions to tough world problems.
What advice do you have for future engineering students?
My advice is to always take up an opportunity to travel internationally and learn from others from different cultures. I was initially unsure about this trip, as I had already been to Israel for three weeks for Lassonde’s annual Technion trip. However, I do not regret it one bit. I have learned so much from not only the speakers but from fellow outstanding student leaders.
This experience has inspired me to be a better person and a better critical thinker. There are things you cannot experience in a typical academic setting, such as riding in a diplomatic vehicle into the West Bank. Take risks – playing it safe keeps you in the status quo.
Favourite food you discovered on your trip?
It is difficult to say – everything is so good – but I would go with shakshuka (eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, and onions).