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The Founding College of the University of Toronto

Meet Incoming Pearson Scholar Deniz Direk


by Georgia Laidlaw

headshot of deniz direk (square)
Incoming Pearson Scholar Deniz Direk in her native Cyprus. Photographs supplied.

University College is thrilled to introduce our incoming 2023 Lester B. Pearson Scholar, Deniz Direk. A graduate of Necat British College, Direk is a half-Cypriot and half-Turkish student with a keen interest in youth-diplomacy, dance, and volunteering to name a few.

“During high school, I took part in various Model UN and European Youth Parliament conferences which helped bring me closer to my peers,” Direk recounts. She credits the bonds and relationships built at these conferences to her eventual organization of Cyprus’ first-ever Intercommunal Youth Dimplomacy Conference (ICYDC).

Held in the buffer zone between Northern and Southern Cyprus, ICYDC was a groundbreaking event that allowed delegates from across the island to peacably discuss their challenges and experiences in a way that fostered common ground and connection. Sponsored by UNFICYP, Direk describes the conference as a “significant step towards a future of unity and harmony between Cypriot youth.”

ICYDC delegate at podium
An ICYDC delegate presenting their vision to the conference.

Direk also volunteered with Zero Food Waste Cyprus, “an initiative with the aim of preventing food waste through the collection of quality, left-over produce from the weekly bazaar and distributing it to those in need.” When she is not helping eliminate food waste or unifying the youth of her country, Deniz can be found reading, listening to music, or dancing. “I have loved dancing for as long as I can remember! I currently specialize in hip-hop as well as modern dance.”

Prior to her arrival in Toronto, UC spoke to Direk about her life in Cyprus and what she’s most excited to experience upon the start of university.

For those who are unfamiliar with Cyprus, can you tell us more about the country?

Cyprus is a country that is divided by a border making Northern Cyprus and Southern Cyprus. The Capital is Nicosia, a city that speaks two languages and uses two different currencies. Nevertheless, we, the youth of Cyprus, are constantly moving towards union even though there are still have many obstacles ahead. Northern Cyprus, where I live, is unrecognized by the world but still attracts countless tourists due to its beautiful beaches and our lovely people.

Can you tell us more about this local fare? What kind of cuisine might we find and what do you enjoy?

Cuisine of Cyprus is very special. We have a lot of food I love like molehiya; it’s this spinach/vegetable dish made with tomatoes, meat and chicken. It's really loved by the people and by myself as well. And then we have halloumi, the cheese which everyone loves. Here, when you come to Cyprus, you eat halloumi.

How did you first become interested in international diplomacy, peacekeeping, and volunteerism?

I became interested in all these things after I attended my first European Youth Parliament session where I met people from all over the island, discussed current issues, and debated with them. Later, as I continued to form connections with the rest of the island, I began wanting to be involved in unifying these communities that are so separated but infinitely similar. This led to many other sessions, and in the end, ICYDC. 

What was ICYDC, what were your goals, and what were some of the conference’s most memorable outcomes?

The organization of the Inter-Communal Youth Diplomacy Conference (ICYDC) was one of the most memorable periods of my time in high school. It aimed to familiarize our communities on common grounds and connect Cyprus in a setting where our delegates can learn from and about each other. It was a very successful two-day event sponsored by UNFICYP that took months of work by our team and was full of participation from our delegates. Due to its success, there are plans for a 2024 session as well! I feel very proud to have been part of starting of something that will hopefully continue for years to come.

Deniz Direk and delegates listen to ICYDC presentation
Deniz Direk and delegates listen to a presentation at Cyprus' first Intercommunal Youth Diplomacy Conference.

What else are you most excited to learn and experience while at university? Are there any clubs or extracurriculars you’re keen to try?

Yes! Last week I spent some time going through the clubs at U of T and found that there are many I want to join! I was especially thrilled to see there are clubs for many different styles of dance. Here in Cyprus I didn’t have the opportunity to pursue Latin dances, so I definitely want to do that at university. I’d also like to join a book club and continue volunteering. I think books are most enjoyable when you have people to discuss them with, and know there will be many more volunteer options and possibilities than what I had in Cyprus. Another one of my goals is to improve the skills I gained in highschool such as writing, public speaking, and expressing myself articulately.

What aspects of UC and college life are you most looking forward to?

I’m honestly really looking forward to living in a dorm, meeting new people, and being a part of the big UC community. As much as I love the small community I’m a part of in Cyprus, I’m fond of new people and new experiences. I am also looking forward to all the opportunities, events, and support that I will have access to through UC such as the annual Fireball dance.

Finally, what are you listening to or reading right now? Do you have any favorites, must-listens, or recommendations?

I am currently reading two books: Serenad by Zülfü Livaneli (a respected musician and author of Turkish literature) and The Beekeeper of Aleppo a truly heartbreaking telling of the refugee experience. I have not completed either so I cannot fully recommend them. However, I can recommend my favorite book, A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro. It was the book that really allowed me to appreciate literature for the first time. As for music, my favorite song that I am listening to on repeat is ‘How soon is now?’ by The Smiths!

The Lester B. Pearson Scholarship is U of T’s most prestigious and competitive scholarship for international students. The scholarship was created to bring exceptional students from around the world to study at the University of Toronto. 

Read a full list of the 2023 Pearson Scholars