a split photo of Milad Ghasemi Ariani and Ghanimat Azhdar
Milad Ghasemi Ariani and Ghanimat Azhdar, the two U of G students who died in the Ukraine International Airlines plane crash on Jan. 8, 2020

Honouring two students who lost their lives in the Ukraine International Airlines plane crash one year ago is the impetus behind new scholarships at the University of Guelph.

The U of G community was devastated by the deaths of international students Milad Ghasemi Ariani and Ghanimat Azhdari, who died aboard Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on Jan. 8, 2020. They were returning to Canada after visiting family in Iran.

More than 20 Canadian colleges and universities lost students and faculty in the plane crash in Tehran, which killed 176 people. A virtual event will be hosted Jan. 8 by the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims.

The inaugural recipients of U of G’s new Milad Ghasemi Ariani Memorial Scholarship and the Ghanimat Azhdari Memorial Scholarship will be announced this year.

“We as a University community continue to grieve the tragic loss of Ghanimat and Milad,” said U of G president Dr. Charlotte Yates.

“They were respected and admired among their peers, and driven by a profound love of learning and a strong desire to improve life in our world. These two scholarships will honour them and their love of education by supporting other international graduate students who choose to attend U of G.”

The University created both awards in consultation with the students’ families.

The $5,000 scholarships will be offered to qualified graduate students for the next five years. Donations were made online for the two scholarships, and all funds raised were matched by the University.

Ghanimat Azhdari

Azhdari was a PhD student in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics. An Indigenous person born into the nomadic Qashqai tribe in southwestern Iran, she had a strong attachment to her ancestral territories and a great respect for Indigenous lands around the world.

Her supervisor, Dr. Faisal Moola, said Azhdari dedicated her life to protecting such places, which she called “territories of life,” or ancient landscapes that sustained Indigenous people for millennia and which hold much of the planet’s biodiversity. She was an international expert in working with Indigenous communities to document and protect their territories.

“Ghanimat’s PhD thesis was devoted to exploring the biocultural richness of Indigenous lands, such as sacred mountains and rivers, berry-picking areas and places where medicinal plants are harvested,” Moola said. “Using participatory community mapping methods, Ghanimat had become an expert in working with local tribespeople to collect and map these critical areas of both ecological and cultural significance.”

The loss of Azhdari and many other talented students in the airline disaster has been devastating for their families and university communities across Canada, he added.

“It is our hope that the scholarship which has been created in her name will help support other students to participate in research that weaves together western science and Indigenous ways of knowing.”

He said members of U of G’s People, Plants and Policy Lab are continuing her important work in partnership with the Miawpukek First Nation in Newfoundland to assess the biocultural richness of their traditional territories.

Milad Ghasemi Ariani

Ariani was a PhD student in the Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies, part of the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics. He studied the novel idea of estimating consumers’ preferences for product attributes, using econometric and machine learning approaches.

During a January 2020 vigil for the victims attended by hundreds, Ariani’s supervisor, Dr. Towhidul Islam, said the young man was a highly motivated student who was always up for a challenge.

Given a complex role in a project to study gaps between consumers’ intended and actual purchases, Ariani took additional courses to gain knowledge of machine learning and acquired the skills he needed to analyze the data.

“He was here for a short time, but he made such connections with people and a lasting impression,” Islam said last year. “This is a great loss to our department.”

He added that Ariani’s dedication to learning and his capabilities as a researcher made him a rising star in his field.

The Ghanimat Azhdari Memorial Scholarship is open to entering international graduate students studying issues related to Indigenous communities and populations, particularly those whose research includes conservation and the environment. Recipients will be selected by the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics.

The Milad Ghasemi Ariani Memorial Scholarship is open to international students entering any graduate program, with preference to PhD or M.Sc. students in the Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies.

Abhinav Chatterjee

The provincial government also created scholarships in honour of the Canadian scholars who died in the crash. The one-time Ontario Remembrance Scholarships were for undergraduates with proven academic excellence, as well as demonstrated financial need and commitment to generosity, curiosity and collaboration.

U of G gave preference to international post-secondary students in allocating the $10,000 awards in fall 2020 to undergraduates Abhinav Chatterjee and Arshia Nazem.

“It is such an honour to be presented with this prestigious award to honour the lives of Milad Ghasemi Ariani and Ghanimat Azhdari, who died in the tragic accident,” said Chatterjee, a fifth-year water resources engineering co-op student.

Born in India, he has spent most of his life in Uganda.

“I want to convey my sincerest condolences to the families and friends that lost their loved ones,” he said. “I hope to keep their legacy alive.”

He said the scholarship will help him offset tuition costs, allow him to provide for his family and enable him to graduate.

Noting that environmental challenges in his home countries are extensive, he said he came to U of G to pursue a unique degree that will allow him to help others use natural resources wisely.

Arshia Nazem

An aspiring veterinarian, Arshia Nazem, is majoring in biomedical sciences.

“This award will significantly aid my family and help relieve my financial burden,” said Nazem, originally from Iran. “It is encouraging to be recognized and honoured with this award, and it has inspired me to work even harder to further advance my academic and professional career.”

Passionate about the use of 3-D printing in veterinary medicine and veterinary oncology, he has collaborated with Ontario Veterinary College researchers to find more accurate radiology procedures for detecting and treating canine cancer. He said he is driven to pursue new learning opportunities and to find ways to share knowledge and break down barriers between academia and the public.

The tragic loss of both students in 2020 affected many people around the globe, Nazem said.

“It is our duty to remember their legacy, keep their memory alive and honour them. I extend my sincerest condolences to their families. I hope no one has to go through this pain ever again.”

U of G students, faculty and staff are reminded that University supports and resources are always available.

For students:

  • Student Counselling Services, Ext. 53244
  • Multi-Faith Resource Team, Ext. 58909 or faith@uoguelph.ca
  • Student Support Network, book an online session at https://wellness.uoguelph.ca/ssn
  • Crisis Text Line, text “UofG” to 68668
  • International Student Adviser, Ext. 58698 or Ext. 53636
  • keep.meSafe App: Download the My SSP App – keep.meSAFE offers free 24 hour counselling support to international students in their own language by chat, phone and virtual appointment.

For faculty and staff:

  • Homewood Employee Health: 1-800-663-1142.
  • Employee assistance program for faculty and staff: 1-800-265-8310