Working together for a better tomorrow
From the basketball court to the classroom, Rishma Chooniedass brings her experiences with teamwork to her teaching and equity leadership at UBC Okanagan.
Rishma Chooniedass has never turned down an opportunity to learn. Whether learning about new colleagues and students or pursuing educational opportunities across various disciplines, Rishma’s deep love of learning is contagious, making her vocation as an educator, researcher and nurse a fitting combination.
Growing up in Winnipeg within Treaty 1 territory, the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene Peoples, and on the National Homeland of the Red River Métis, Rishma experienced the dynamic tapestry of multiculturalism in her formative years. As a daughter of immigrant parents from Trinidad, a vibrant island in the Caribbean, Rishma‘s passion for learning was nurtured alongside a rich cultural heritage and deep appreciation for diversity. “Growing up, my parents instilled the importance of education in me,” shares Rishma. “My parents came from big families and had other responsibilities that didn’t allow them to go to university.”
“For me, it’s not about being successful or a specific achievement. I want to learn more so that I can be a better person, however I can. I think learning should never end.”
Rishma took this sentiment to heart, earning four degrees in her academic career across several related disciplines—microbiology, homeopathy and nursing. While different reasons brought her to these areas of study, their combined focus demonstrates how Rishma approaches challenges—by drawing on multiple viewpoints and perspectives to come to the best solutions. “If there’s an opportunity to learn, I’m going to take it,” shares Rishma. “For me, it’s not about being successful or for a specific achievement. I want to learn more so that I can be a better person, however I can. I think learning should never end.”
Rishma experienced the value of bringing together diverse voices during her time on a research team at the University of Manitoba. “We had people on our team from around the world and an incredible leader who invested the time to get to know everyone and their cultures. I learned so much about the importance of relationships in a team.” Rishma says. “We would have potluck lunches where everyone would bring a dish related to their culture. We would talk about why it was significant and engage and share while we were eating together. It was a memorable experience and something I’ve continued with my clinical students.”
Beyond academia, Rishma’s views on teamwork came further into focus during her four years as a volunteer coach for a Special Olympics basketball team. While she had previous experience playing the sport, coaching was a new role for her. “The athletes were incredible—I learned a lot from them. The teamwork was magical. They cared so much for each other,” says Rishma. “What we put time and energy into matters. It shows you the priorities in life. So often, life can feel like a rat race trying to achieve something, but the athletes were having fun and just living life.”
When Rishma relocated to Kelowna in 2017 to pursue new life adventures, she quickly noticed a stark contrast between her new neighbourhood in Kelowna and the more multicultural environment she was accustomed to in Manitoba. Adjusting to her new environment brought unexpected challenges. Despite her intention to find work in the healthcare sector, her numerous applications yielded no callbacks despite her clinical and research experience. Fortuitously for future generations of students, Rishma’s perseverance would find her a role at UBC Okanagan, where she would become a strong advocate and champion supporting equity and diversity in her classroom and beyond.
Now in her teaching career, Rishma brings together the many lessons she has learned throughout her journey to build strong relationships and work together with students, colleagues and the wider community in her roles as Assistant Professor of Teaching in the School of Nursing and Advisor to the Dean on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Faculty of Health and Social Development. “I am very proud of the relationships that I have made in my life,” says Rishma. “I have a genuine interest in learning about people, and their stories. This has allowed me the privilege of forging meaningful bonds with friends, colleagues and students around the world. This not only enriches my life but defines who I am.”
Taking every opportunity to collaborate with students, faculty, staff and the wider community, Rishma aims to help foster positive and welcoming environments inside and outside the classroom that celebrate the rich diversity of students. “After experiencing feeling like an outsider, I’m happy I can now use this experience to help and empower others and to help eliminate sources of bias that make people feel alienated and alone,” says Rishma. “I also want to learn more beyond my own experiences so I can be an advocate. I’m taking a lot of other courses and spending time building relationships with other departments and in the community at events. I feel like I’m always learning.”
Putting her learning and knowledge into further practice, Rishma supports a number of important initiatives and projects to move equity forward at UBC Okanagan. She serves as one of the editors of Respect Magazine, UBC’s student magazine on equity matters. She also supported the redesign of the Bachelor of Nursing Science curriculum, including co-developing modules on inclusive leadership.
“It’s been such an enriching experience,” said Rishma. “I have witnessed firsthand the positive impacts that can be achieved when we work together to create inclusive and equitable learning environments that celebrate and embrace our differences.”