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A friend-torship: How the power of friendship (and mutual names) created a lifelong connection

April 23, 2021

By Perry King


With nearly 600 student and alumni participants this school year, the OISE Mentorship Program is one of the Institute’s more popular and fast-growing programs. The program is devoted to creating meaningful connections between alumni mentors and student mentees – across 25-plus 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 story is the fourth in a series, where we meet mentors and mentees and the ties that bind them. 

Learn more about the OISE Mentorship Program

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

Read part 2, a conversation with Wayne Li and Dr. Barbara Soren

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

How Christina Caleca and Kristina Leis met is easily one of the more serendipitous moments you could imagine. It took place in 2015 at OISE, in a class with Professor Lauren Bialystok.

“We were sitting across from each other, we were both early, and I was telling her something about how bad I am at budgeting. And she's like, ‘No, you need a budget!’” recalls Leis, who earned her Master of Education in 2017.

“And I remember getting so mad at you – I was like, ‘No, I need to teach you how to create a finance budget,” laughed Caleca, who finished her Master of Education in 2018.

“It was literally the most out of the blue conversation you could have with someone but it was an instant connection,” Leis added.

They’ve been close ever since – Bialystok is definitely their favourite professor from that experience – but taking their own divergent professional paths. But, they are closer now – bound by calls to create communities of justice.

OISE was recommended to Leis through a professor at her alma mater, Dr. Vida Panitch at Carleton University – specifically Bialystok’s courses on philosophy, identity, gender and ethics in education. “All that interest in the self and how we understand ourselves is my own interest as well,” said Leis, who now works as a teacher and entrepreneur.

Leis’ experience at Carleton was life-changing. “And when I came back to Toronto, for my master's, I got there through my philosophy courses – where I was super interested in theories of justice, and how we understand like how to distribute our resources within communities and within society,” says Leis, citing the work of philosophers Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls.

As Leis and Caleca were matched for the mentorship program, their friendship became an advantage, and they brought a deep passion for mentorship and education with them. This is not Leis’ first experience as a mentor, who first took part in this program in 2018.

“Yeah, mentorship comes naturally to me – I have so much fun, inspiring people and helping them think differently about things,” says Leis.

She wants to help Caleca with her own self-discovery. “There’s a sense of your own power and your own empowerment that I'm really passionate about too,” she added. “How do you empower yourself when we live in a world that takes its power from you – that’s the whole focus of a capitalist system."

“But how do you get power back? By answering your own questions and showing others how to answer their own questions without seeking that external validation or, you know, spending thousands of dollars trying to get an answer from someone else.”

For her part, Caleca will begin doctoral studies this fall and return to OISE looking to focus on gender equity rights and autonomy development.

Caleca has a robust background in sports – she was a competitive swimmer before a serious knee surgery forced her to retire and pivot to education. (Leis is also a big sports fan and active athlete.) In turn, this fall, Caleca wants to create a working document for health and physical education that schools and students can use to teach kids about themselves and their bodies.

The intention, she says, is to give young students more autonomy and independence in decision making. “I think students are equipped to make their own independent choices,” said Caleca, who will be working under Bialystok’s tutelage. “You go your whole life being told what to think but I want to create a working document that both public and Catholic school boards can use and teach them how to think independently and make autonomous decisions.”

Leis’ and Caleca’s bond hasn’t wavered in the pandemic, and they are each nurturing a relationship that has been challenged by the pandemic.  

For her part, Caleca is excited to be working with Bialystok again, whom she worked with as she completed her master's at OISE.

“I think she'll be able to help me best create that document and make something that will actually help students 10 years from now,” said Caleca.


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