Juanita Gnanapragasam is not the type to limit himself to one interest, study only one subject. She believes her diverse passions and expertise in her work will play a role in her career and life goal – building a community where everyone can thrive.
She now knows she doesn’t have to limit herself from what she learned while teaching at the University of Alberta’s Peter Lougheed Leadership College. “The most important thing I realized was that I don’t have to isolate my interests. They can all be related; I can be an interdisciplinary person.”
And she has found the perfect field for this – occupational therapy.
Her interest in occupational therapy began during her studies. She took one course mainly because she was intrigued by the title – Introduction to the Roads of Happiness, then taught by Suzette Brémault-Phillips.
“What really drew me to this area was this idea of asking people what’s important to them and using them to support their well-being,” says Gnanapragasam.
She got a first impression of what this support could look like when she was involved in the Undergraduate Research Initiative. For her capstone project, she examined how international students found access to culturally relevant and nutritious food and what barriers they faced. As her passion for the project grew, she temporarily put her goal of occupational therapy on hold to pursue a Masters in Public Health and focus her research on food sustainability and cultural sustainability through food.
She helped pilot some hugely popular cooking classes with the Sustainability Council, an academic leadership organization that provides students with courses and experiential learning opportunities related to sustainability. Gnanapragasam wanted to keep classes small to encourage an intimate community atmosphere and demand soon exceeded capacity. To reach people who couldn’t attend, she co-published a University of Alberta cookbook that included stories from students and faculty so more people could participate in the preparation of the dishes and learn more about the personal stories behind them.
People wanted to know how they could participate in the friendly cooking classes after leaving university, so Gnanapragasam teamed up with Mishma Mukith to co-found Converse and Cook, a non-profit organization whose goal is to build a community where… People engage in food and each other.
The non-profit organization has grown as Gnanapragasam continued her academic journey. This year, Gnanapragasam and Mukith are launching a new program with Kickstand (a province-wide initiative that helps youth access health and social services such as apps to support mindfulness and mental health). It spans four weeks of virtual cooking classes to help youth recover from mental illness. The two are also releasing a citywide home cooking cookbook that features stories of resilience to the pandemic.
“These partnerships have grown organically and demonstrate a need for programs that address not only nutrition literacy but also connections.”
For Gnanapragasam, the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants, food has always been a way to connect with her culture. Her absolute favorite dish is shrimp curry with rice, prepared using the traditional Sri Lankan method her mother prepares every year for her birthday.
Food isn’t the only way she’s found to help people build connections and promote well-being. She has also been involved with the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine’s FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL®) program for the past seven years, first as a volunteer and eventually as a program leader.
Aimed at children aged nine to 14, the program brings them together and encourages their interest in science and technology through hands-on learning. Participants of different ages, diagnoses and abilities work together on projects and develop their STEM skills by building connections with each other.
“It’s nice to see the kids giving each other space and accepting each other’s abilities. The children get so much out of it,” says Gnanapragasam. “I think it was one of the most meaningful things I did in my undergraduate degree.”
Her belief in the importance of connections also led her to take a part-time role as a community integration consultant with the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues, where she assists leagues in attracting underrepresented community members through alliances. She is currently helping pilot a league-wide SafeWalk program to combat racism and Islamophobia in Edmonton neighborhoods.
“I don’t have all the answers,” says Gnanapragasam. “But what I’m very good at is finding people who do it and making those connections and relationships.”
Gnanapragasam is now putting her latest degree to work by working as an occupational therapist in a mental health program, although she still draws on all of her other academic experiences in her current role.
“I love how the diversity of my experiences has allowed me to see people beyond their diagnoses, to see people for who they really are, beyond their interactions with the healthcare system.”
Gnanapragasam is open to whatever the future holds, but her dream would be to run a community kitchen or therapeutic greenhouse where she can empower people and help them cultivate meaning in their lives.
“I’ve always wanted to see this thriving, vibrant community, and I realized that if you want it, you have to help create it,” she says. “And when you do that, other people come on board and you get the community that you’ve been looking for.”
| By Adrianna McPherson
Adrianna is a reporter at the University of Alberta online magazine Folio. The University of Alberta is an editorial content partner of Troy Media.
The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are solely their own and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.
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