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‘Lost in the beginning’: Production of Billy Elliot sparks connection OISE pair never expected

November 13, 2020

By Perry King

Photo courtesy of Wei Li

The OISE Mentorship Program is one of the Institute’s more popular and fast-growing programs. With nearly 600 student and alumni participants this year, the mentorship program is devoted to creating meaningful connections between alumni mentors and student mentees – across 25+ different areas in education. With an annual launch event for participants to meet for the first time, followed by a series of mentorship “how-to” workshops, seminars and resource packages, participants are encouraged to meet, chat, collaborate or job shadow often and by any means they’re comfortable – whether it’s in person or online.

OISE News wanted to explore the strengths of the program and how it has fostered relationships between many in the community. This is the second story in a series, where we meet mentors and mentees and the ties that bind them. 

Learn more about the OISE Mentorship Program

Wei Li’s mentorship with Dr. Barbara Soren has been a godsend.

Li, who is in his second year of his master's degree, arrived from China last year to set a new path for himself. He’s a dance artist and ESL teacher who found himself wanting more from his career. “I wanted to go to OISE and extend my theoretical study in both second language and art education, and try to collaborate with two worlds,” he said.

He entered the OISE Mentorship Program feeling “lost in the beginning” – he was in a new country, honing his professional life (in education and art) and coming to grips with his queerness. He joined the mentorship program only expecting professional help and career guidance.

“I think everything started to change as I started to have conversations with Barbara,” said Li. “We really connected and we have so much in common to talk about and share.”

Through the program’s matching, Li met Soren, an independent consultant who specializes in working with cultural and community organizations. But, she’s also passionate about the arts and arts education – Soren came to work at museums after completing her BEd degree at OISE and her Master of Science in Teaching from McMaster University, primarily at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

“I was really quite surprised at Wayne and the connections that the two of us had that I truly didn’t expect,” said Soren, who earned her PhD from OISE in 1990.

Soren also has a gay son. While some of the connections were coincidental, the bonds that join Li and Soren were quite strong.

“All those links were kind of fascinating and we had the best conversations,” she said. Once matched, they didn't wait to get started. They saw each other in person, at mentorship meetings and have kept in touch over Zoom since the rise of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Barbara Soren, pictured right, with former U of T Faculty of Information Assistant Dean, Judy Dunn, in 2012. (Courtesy iSchool)

“There were lots of ways that I felt we could connect,” said Soren, who has previously served as a mentor and internship coordinator. “I could give Wayne some experiences in the arts and culture area that he couldn't get during OISE courses he was taking.”

Three interactions really stand out between them.

For one, their first conversation was centered around Li’s love of dance and growing up in China. When Soren brought up that the play Billy Elliot was finishing its run at Stratford in 2019, Li swiftly got on a bus to watch the play twice – including its last day.

“I was crying each time I watched it,” said Li. "That experience really helped him try to understand how he wanted to grow."

“I just had a feeling that this was a way for Wayne to connect with himself,” said Soren.

Second, when Li showed interest in U of T’s Knowledge Media Design Institute, encouraged Li to enrol in the program, and introduced him to a colleague at the Faculty of Information who teaches within KMDI. Li would proceed to take courses there. Li’s study there led to his first publication in the journal SAGE – titled Pause and Forward: Body, Movement and COVID, he fully embraced his identity as an artist for the first time.

Truly, Soren saw Li’s path as similar to her own – she was a student focused on arts and museum-based learning, rather than school-based learning and she struggled at times as an OISE student. “I had to find my way and show difference and be different,” she said. “Somehow, I knew that Wayne would have to deal with that, too. And I'm glad that I was able to help him through some of the ways that he could be different.”

The third was the first time they convened after the pandemic lockdown was in place. “I realized how important this conversation is,” Li said.

“I think what it meant to me is that it is important to stay connected and you have a continuing conversation that is unfinished,” he added. “That is something to keep me going through an epidemic.

“I also realized how meaningful this mentorship, this connection, was because we were in a quarantine, we were supposed to disconnect with everybody physically. But we still shared a connection so we can move forward.”

The mentorship, so far, has solidified how Soren feels about what matters to her – lifelong learning and human development more than anything.

Soren recently found out that Li is staying in Canada – a lovely surprise that they each hope to take advantage of after the pandemic. “I've had all kinds of plans for the two of us to go to dance performances, to introduce him to the cultural world in Toronto, opportunities that he can't get through OISE,” she said.

Her goal is to broaden his horizons and show him what exists in dance, arts and culture. “I'm glad that he's staying and that we may still have an opportunity to do some of that,” she added.

More from this series

Read part 1, a conversation with Cam Kilgour, Shanelle Henry and Vivian Hoang

Read part 3, a conversation with Drs. Cindy Sinclair and Salma Siddiqui

Read part 4, a conversation with Christina Caleca and Kristina Leis


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