Academic Leaders

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Getting to Know Our Leaders: Q & A with Dr. Kevin C. Hewitt


Dr. Kevin C. Hewitt, Associate Professor, Department of Physics & Atmospheric Science,
Faculty of Science
(N. Pearce photo)

By Lisa DeLong, Advisor, Human Rights & Equity

You have been a very successful academic and community leader. What experiences or supports did you have along this path?

Being an immigrant to this country, I lived the experience of many immigrants of being, in a way, caught between two worlds: one in Toronto and one in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. As is the case for many immigrants, my mother placed a great emphasis on education. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, there is a very high unemployment rate and high engagement in the drug trade. My mother came to Canada for the sake of her children. She made many sacrifices to raise four children on her own: we were separated from her for ten years while she established a life for us in Canada. She ensured that we all understood that she came here to provide us with opportunities and encouraged to go as far as possible with our studies. This message was well-received: all of my siblings are successful professionals and we reflect this lesson in giving back to the community. Although my mother is no longer with us, I can say that all my successes are due to her support and encouragement.

The program that you co-founded, Imhotep’s Legacy Academy (ILA), has been instrumental in addressing barriers faced by African Nova Scotian students and opening opportunities for them. How did the program come about?  

I grew up in Toronto, and my family was very engaged with the African Canadian community. I then moved to Vancouver — where there is a relatively small Black community — for graduate studies in Physics. As a result, I had to work, through student and community groups, to maintain cultural connections.

This work led to the first incarnation of ILA: a one-day workshop at Simon Fraser University for children of African descent called “Seeing is Believing.”  This theme — investigating optics — had a wonderful double message of exploring scientific illusions but also of seeing scientists of African descent, and thus seeing opportunities for themselves in the sciences. I then came to Halifax for post-Doctoral work, and I was very intrigued by Nova Scotia and its unique history of the indigenous Black population which has fought long and hard for recognition and opportunities. 

Through work with an Afrocentric Science program based at SMU, I came into contact with Wayn Hamilton, who understood realities of the education system for African Nova Scotians, and later, Barbara Hamilton-Hinch, whose work involved direct engagement with African Canadian students. In my mind, the three of us brought complementary skills to form the three “legs” of the program. We got some seed funding, set up a pilot project and ILA was born. 

What lessons have you learned through this experience?

I have learned that, in order to effect meaningful change, we can’t just offer a “drop in a bucket” but, rather, we need to make sustained efforts in a way that works for the people involved.  This recognition led to a move from a summer-only program to one that runs all year in the form of an after-school program in several NS schools.

It also led to a recognition that face-to-face contact is key (and this is recognized in the research: the social side is as important as the academic) and so we have invested great efforts in setting up a comprehensive mentorship program. We received funding at key phases to enable the program to grow and flourish, and we also established with TD Bank a unique scholarship program that grows with a student from grade seven right through university.   

We have also worked out a program to fund summer employment opportunities in the sciences for African Canadian university students so that they can gain relevant professional experience in their chosen profession. While the program has been effective in reducing educational and conceptual barriers, financial support is key in creating real opportunities for students. These opportunities are paying off. We established teams for the Lego League Robotics competitions; last year (our second year participating), all of our three teams qualified for the final and the Halifax team won for best technical presentation! We also have a number of success stories of former students who are emerging as leaders in the sciences – and we are very proud of them! One such example is Leanne Lucas who is, to my knowledge, the first African Nova Scotian to graduate with a MSc in Physics. Ensuring core funding for the program is an ongoing challenge.

You have now “passed the torch” and ILA is now under the very capable leadership of Dr. Pemberton Cyrus. What are your next plans?

I decided that I would step back from ILA to free up more time for family and research — but through a very interesting turn of events, I learned that Dr. Keith Taylor’s [former AVP Academic] brother, Sandy Taylor, is doing innovative work with Grade 4 students in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Then, purely coincidentally, I met the Dean of the College of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I am now working on a collaborative effort to design and deliver programs aimed at supporting opportunities in the sciences for students in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This is a homecoming of sorts for me and a chance to try and provide some of the opportunities that were given to me because of my mother’s decision to come to Canada.

Thank you, Kevin! We are very lucky to have your expertise and engagement here at Dalhousie!