Nursing alum delivers keynote address at U of T Black Grad 2024

3 July 2024

Denika McPherson shares her thoughts on the impact of legacy and her own pursuit of excellence.

When Denika McPherson was preparing for her graduation from the Master of Nursing – Primary Care – Global Health Nurse Practitioner (NP) program at the Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing in late 2021, she recalls her excitement at the thought of being able to attend U of T’s Black Grad ceremony. The pandemic, however, derailed her plans and McPherson had to settle with graduating virtually. 

So, when she was recently asked to participate in the eighth annual U of T Black Grad ceremony hosted by the Black Students Association, as a keynote speaker, McPherson was overjoyed to accept, and honoured to be able to participate in such a unique opportunity for U of T’s Black students.

“I was moved to tears when I received the request, because U of T Black Grad is a sight to behold, in terms of its profound sense of community, cultural significance, and the recognition it provides to Black students who face a unique set of challenges,” says McPherson who is currently a Senior Business Advisor for the Government of Ontario’s Ministry of Health.

The U of T Black Graduation Ceremony (U of T Black Grad) was established in 2017, to highlight the accomplishments of Black students at the undergraduate and graduate level. This year’s ceremony took place at Hart House on June 2nd.

In her speech, McPherson reflected on the ceremony’s theme of passing the baton of excellence, leaning on the metaphor of a relay team in the sport of track and field. She reminded the new graduates that their successes were a collective effort, resulting from of the support they have received from family, friends, mentors, scholarships and awards, and the advocacy of those who have come before them, fighting for their right to be in these spaces.

“I thought back to my own “relay team” behind my successes, and that included family and mentors, but also the fact that I received a Black and Indigenous Graduate Scholarship, which supported my graduate school journey,” says McPherson.

In speaking to the theme of the legacy of excellence, McPherson shared her personal reflections on an article from Moses Imawa, who asks the reader to pursue excellence in the pursuit of perfection. McPherson urged graduates to pursue excellence with passion and a mission to make a difference, while advocating for self-care and balance. She sees this as how an individual can define their version of excellence instead of seeking external validation, which she says, is particularly important when thinking of Black excellence and wellness. 

“When you are the first Black anything, you carry a heavy burden because there is an expectation of perfection,” says McPherson, “I reminded the graduating students that excellence is not perfection; it is having a balanced perspective and giving yourself grace.”

McPherson, who has spent most of her career as a clinician working in critical care, admits that she had not initially seen herself taking on a formal leadership role. It wasn’t until she worked in health administration and pursued her master’s degree at Bloomberg Nursing, she says, that she started to think at a systems level, and how she could contribute to the advanced practice domains of nursing at a provincial and policy level.

Now, in her current role, McPherson is contributing to the transformation of health systems and the delivery of care through digital health technology.  As an NP and critical care nurse she brings what she says, is a unique and human-centred approach to digital health.

“When thinking about digital health, I think about the clinician pain points and challenges I faced when I used these tools, and I bring that insight with me. Many health administration professionals are not clinicians or front-line practitioners, and it is vital that we have a seat at the table,” says McPherson.

As she looked out over the many new graduates during the U of T Black Grad ceremony, McPherson shared how important it was for them to stay connected as alumni. For herself, representation and inclusivity are the driving forces behind her motivation to stay engaged as an alumna.

“As both a Teaching Assistant and in my role as a Nurse Practitioner, I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard from patients or students how significant it was for them to have someone who looked like them in these spaces. It really speaks to the importance of diversity and representation,” says McPherson.

This Fall, McPherson will expand her role in digital health transformation even further as an incoming AMS-Fitzgerald Fellow in AI and Human-Centered Leadership at the Joint Centre for Bioethics in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. She is intrigued by the potential use cases for artificial intelligence in health to support the Quintuple Aim of enhancing patient experience, improving population health, reducing health system costs, improving the work-life balance of healthcare providers, and advancing health equity.

In her final words to the assembled graduates, McPherson shared some words of advice, “carve your path. There are many boxes that people will want to put you in, but it is up to you to choose your own adventure.”