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IfP Graduate Studentship Award recipient works to improve treatment of migrant workers

September 15/2023

Graduate Studentship Award recipient Stephanie Mayell’s journey is a testament to the transformative power of education and determination. Dropping out of high school at sixteen years old, her path seemed far removed from the world of academia. However, fast forward thirty years, and Mayell’s reality is nothing short of remarkable.

By Tedd Konya

Supported by the Institute for Pandemics (IfP) Graduate Studentship Award, Mayell is now immersed in a doctoral program centered around pandemic research. Her focus is on exploring the health experiences and workplace risks faced by migrant agricultural workers from Jamaica, where, according to Statistics Canada, in 2021, 8,600 migrant workers employed in Canadian agriculture were from Jamaica. These individuals, as temporary residents, exist in a state of structural vulnerability.

Portrait of Stephanie Mayell who received the Institute for Pandemic's Graduate Studentship Award.Mayell’s interest in academic research and focus on vulnerable populations began with personal experiences that changed her life. After tragically losing her brother to mental illness and her daughter’s development of a life-threatening allergy, Mayell wanted to get a deeper understanding of these issues. She embarked on an academic journey, initially studying anthropology with a biocultural perspective at Trent University. She went on to complete a Master’s degree at McMaster University and eventually, enrolled as a PhD candidate in U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science, specializing in medical anthropology.

The loss of her brother played a pivotal role in shaping Mayell’s research focus on mental health. When the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, she observed a stark contradiction in how the government classified migrant agricultural workers as essential while often treating them as disposable. “The federal government allowed migrant workers deemed critical to the food system to enter Canada, but the policies put in place to protect these workers were inadequate and failed to consider the social determinants of health faced by this population,” states Mayell.

This conflicting messaging took a toll on the mental health of these workers, an issue Mayell was particularly attuned to. Mayell’s work, supervised by Anne-Emanuelle Birn and Bianca Dahl from the University of Toronto Scarborough, delves into the resilience and resistance displayed by marginalized, racialized migrant agricultural workers and their advocates during the COVID-19 pandemic. It scrutinizes how activist pressure on policymakers influences pandemic recovery efforts.

As part of the IfP Graduate Studentship Program, Mayell will be working with researchers from diverse disciplines as part of the IfP Graduate Studentship program. The Institute’s interdisciplinary nature, as a U of T Institutional Strategic Initiative comprising members from 10 divisions across three campuses, provides fertile ground for such collaboration. Professor Geoffrey Anderson, IfP Recovery Theme Lead, expressed his enthusiasm for Mayell’s inclusion in the program, “I am thrilled to welcome Stephanie as part of our studentship program. Her research is perfectly aligned with the Recovery Theme’s research on health impacts on vulnerable populations and ensuring an equitable recovery.”

While Mayell plans to complete her doctoral research within the academic year, the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group noticed the impact of Mayell’s work, and invited her to join their group in 2020. As a core member of this group, she has contributed to policy papers affecting change at all levels of government; and she plans to continue her mission of driving meaningful societal changes.

The pandemic has presented opportunities for transformation, and now is the perfect time for Graduate Studentship Award members like Mayell to inspire policymakers to improve the health and safety of vulnerable populations.