UTM aerial photograph

UTM alumnus gives back

by Christine Ward

When Marko Spajic received the email telling him he’d been awarded a $1,000 UTM academic prize, he thought it was a scam.

“I mentioned it to one of my professors as a bit of a joke and he told me to look into it,” he laughs.

Image of Marko Spajic
Ziyaad Vahed

It was good advice. The fourth-year UTM student was not only an award-winner; he was the inaugural recipient of the UTM Comparative Political Science Prize, one of two new awards established by three-time U of T alumnus Ziyaad Vahed (BA 1999 UTM, BEd 2000 and MEd 2004 OISE).

Vahed created the UTM Comparative Political Science Prize and the Politics of Islam Prize after his volunteer work — including terms as both president of the UTM Alumni Association (2019-2021) and a UTM Campus Council member (ongoing since 2018) — opened his eyes to the possibility of what a gift could make possible.

“I have a deep connection to UTM that started during my student days,” he explains. While earning his undergraduate degree in political science and history, Vahed served as president of the UTM Muslim Students’ Association and as a member of the Principal’s Diversity Committee. He later held a part-time job in the university’s registrar’s office, where he helped students bridge the gaps in their finances. 

“I saw students in tears, having to make difficult decisions about whether or not they could continue their education. It had a huge impact on how I thought about financial need,” he remembers.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, he knew it was time to act.

“I knew right away that it was going to be harder for students financially because of the lack of jobs.” As a director of the Government of Ontario Cabinet Office, Vahed was also aware of the need for future leaders who understand the complexities of a world that is at once more connected and more polarized than ever before.

The UTM Comparative Political Science Prize supports a third- or fourth-year comparative politics student who demonstrates good academic standing and financial need. Preference is given to Black or Indigenous students. The Politics of Islam Prize recognizes the top student in UTM’s Politics of Islam course.

Vahed has committed to funding both awards with annual gifts over five years — a funding option that he was delighted to learn was both within his budget yet still capable of making a difference for students like Spajic.

“It meant a lot to have my hard work recognized,” Spajic says of his prize. “I didn’t think anyone had taken notice of my efforts.”

Image of student in front of University of Toronto Mississauga sign

Now a UTM graduate, he hopes to use the award to seed the next stage of his education: a Master’s degree that marries his twin loves of political and computer science.

“It affirmed that if I am truly passionate about accomplishing something and I’m prepared to work hard, good things will happen.”