Inaugural Renaissance Awards take winners to new experiences around the world


Here’s something you don’t hear about every day: a university award designed to help students broaden their education by not going to school.

The newly established Drs. Jolie Ringash and Glen Bandiera Renaissance Award provides up to $25,000 annually for students to take time from their fields of study to pursue knowledge in other areas.

The two inaugural winners have now been selected.

One project will see a biology student study eastern religion and philosophy in India, Nepal and Thailand, to understand what they can teach North Americans about conserving nature.

The other project will send two Arts & Science students to locations such as New York, Barcelona and Berlin to study how communities change when residents establish “creative communal spaces”.

The donors behind the award are both McMaster graduates.

They established the award to allow winners to have the chance to take time out from their regular coursework to tackle projects that are valuable in and of themselves, and that allow students to broaden their perspectives – a goal that aligns closely with McMaster president Patrick Deane’s Forward With Integrity initiative.

“When we conceptualized this project, our goal was a very general one – to encourage students to think ‘outside the box’ and acquire skills and experience from other disciplines which they could then use to enrich their future careers in their chosen specialties,” Ringash says.

Starting in October, a faculty selection committee reviewed letters of intent from applicants, and selected five projects that most closely represented the ideals of the Renaissance Award. The finalists developed full proposals in collaboration with faculty mentors.

From those, the two winners emerged.

“There was such an incredible variety of projects proposed, and students took such different approaches to developing their ideas,” says Allison Sekuler, the associate vice-president and dean of Graduate Studies and a member of the committee.  “It was a bit like comparing apples and oranges because all of these projects really would benefit the students, and so many would have given back to the community as well.”

Biology student Beth Nagai is using her award to learn how spiritual detachment in North American culture may be contributing to the decline of species and environments – if we are ruining the natural world because we don’t have a strong enough spiritual connection to it.

To find out, she is heading to India, Nepal, and Thailand to study Eastern philosophy and religion through experiences as a volunteer, student and visitor.  She took a course called Religion and Ecology, which inspired her to learn more about such ideas as interdependence and karma and how they can apply to conservation.

“This is a huge opportunity for me to pursue something I’m really passionate about and have always been interested in,” Nagai says.

Jackie Brown and Rosalind Pfaff from the Arts & Science program are planning to study the emerging concept of “creative communal spaces” – built by and for members of communities based on location or shared interests such as the arts, often in reclaimed structures – and how they can improve urban neighbourhoods, including their potential for Hamilton.

The students will go fact-finding in Toronto, New York, Chicago, London, Barcelona and Berlin, starting in April.

“It’s a type of research we’ve never done before,” says Pfaff. “We’ve studied in a formal school setting for the last four years and never done hands-on research by ourselves.”

“A lot of the work we’ve done through our university careers has been very theoretical,” says Brown. “It’s really amazing to have the opportunity to engage in hands-on experiential field research.”

The husband-and-wife donors behind the awards say it is fulfilling to see the awards move from concept to reality.

“We are impressed by the creativity and courage that the applicants have brought to the projects,” says Bandiera. “The committee must have had a very tough job to do but it seems to us they have succeeded in choosing very worthwhile projects and individuals to support.”