January 19, 2024 | Volunteer & Awards

Honouring U of T’s most dedicated volunteers

The 2023 Arbor Award recipients were celebrated in person for the first time since 2019

Three awards winners standing together with U of T president Meric Gertler, smiling and holding their awards..

Three of this year's Arbor Award winners (left to right): Hannah Hadfield, Orysia Goddard and Carolina Garcia, all from Haley Sharpe Design, with U of T President Meric Gertler. 

The Arbor Awards are the University of Toronto’s highest honour for volunteers. They also serve as a powerful annual reminder of the central importance of volunteerism to the university. “Our success is due in no small measure to the excellence of our alumni and friends, whose dedication is exemplified by our Arbor Award winners, past and present,” said President Meric Gertler at a ceremony honouring award recipients on January 16.

First in-person celebration since 2019

The evening celebration at The Carlu was the first time the university has been able to hold an in-person Arbor Awards ceremony since 2019 before COVID-19 restrictions came into force. Invitations were also extended to award winners from the intervening years of 2020, 2021 and 2022 so they could be thanked face-to-face.

A sign shows that the ceremony is also honoring recipients from 2020, 2021 and 2022.
Award winners from 2020, 2021 and 2022 were also invited this year so they could be honoured in person.

This year’s 92 recipients have significantly impacted virtually every aspect of life at the university, including core areas such as academic and co-curricular programming. For example, Michael Blugerman (BA 1968 WDW) was recognized for providing practicum placements for master’s students from the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. Peter Murphy (BASc 2016, MASc 2020), meanwhile, earned an award for his many contributions to U of T Engineering, such as judging its annual parliamentary debate competition.

The expertise and experience of Arbor Award recipients are also vital for strategy and decision-making at all levels of the university. Lennox Phillips (BA 2001 UTM), for instance, has served on the Council of Presidents, Governing Council College of Electors and as president of U of T Mississauga’s alumni association. Dr. Elizabeth MacSween (DDS 1980) has had a similar impact on the Faculty of Dentistry as part of the Dean’s Advisory Committee and Chair of the faculty’s Campaign Cabinet.

Volunteers gain so much in return

Brian Lawson (BA 1982 TRIN), a leading member of the U of T community, spoke to the group from his perspective as a fellow volunteer. “Something we know all too well is that as much as we give to the university, we gain so much in return,” he said. “It is profoundly fulfilling to join forces with others to support something so important and where the impacts are so immediate and clear,” said Lawson, whose volunteer commitments currently include co-chairing the Defy Gravity campaign and serving as Trinity College Chancellor. He received an Arbor Award in 2021 alongside his wife, Joannah.

Brian Lawson speaking at a podium.
Brian Lawson spoke from his perspective as a fellow volunteer.

The impact of volunteers at U of T is felt most immediately by students, who benefit immensely from professionals offering industry insights and advising around career planning, network building and other supports integral to future success. This includes mentorship from award recipients such as Vania Sakelaris (BSc 1990 VIC), who also delivers guest lectures and other services as the inaugural Executive-in-Residence at U of T Scarborough’s Department of Management. Andrew Foley (BA 1985 TRIN, MA 1987, LLB 1991), another esteemed honoree, was recognized for his dedication to supporting law students, particularly by helping them navigate the summer recruitment process in the United States.

According to vice-president of advancement David Palmer, this year’s recipients once again emphasized how leading volunteers are key contributors to U of T’s core mission and commitment to inclusive excellence. “That’s why, for the first time ever in a U of T campaign, we have included alumni engagement as a primary goal for Defy Gravity alongside our fundraising goals,” he said. “We are exceptionally grateful to all nominees, past and present, for their tremendous contributions that have elevated every aspect of life at U of T.”

Fostering unity and a sense of pride

U of T’s volunteers also foster unity and a sense of pride, with efforts that range from keeping alumni connected across different graduating classes to preserving cherished university traditions to fundraising for much-loved programming and infrastructure. Arbor Award recipients active in these endeavors include Michelle Alfano (BA 1982 NEW), past chair of the Soldier's Tower Committee; Allon Bross, a significant contributor to U of T's Varsity Blues Basketball Program; Kevin Johnston, a champion for the Hart House Bridge Club; and Sheila Royce (BA 1967 TRIN), who has long represented Trinity College’s Class of 1968.

A shot of the audience at the Arbor Awards.
The Arbor Awards celebration serves as a powerful annual reminder of the importance of volunteerism.

Maintaining pride and connection is particularly important at U of T, which has a vast global alumni community. “The Arbor Award is a special distinction, one that sets you apart within a U of T family that includes more than 682,000 alumni around the world,” said Barbara Dick (BA 1987 UC), assistant vice-president of alumni relations. “Your Arbor Award pin denotes that you are recipients of one of the highest honours U of T can bestow on volunteers. We hope you will wear it with pride.”


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