Nov. 14, 2023
Bright Lights, Big City: UCalgary Alumni Shine in Top 40 Under 40
We are all, to some degree, celebrities. You’ve got your own spotlight and wattage. In your family or at your workplace or on an online platform or even a coffee shop where everyone, it seems, knows your name, you’re someone’s shining star.
As the annual Top 40 Under 40 list celebrates its 25th year of recognizing UCalgary alumni among its many honourees, we’re highlighting three alumni who have shone on that yearly list throughout it’s tenureship -- Ian Chiclo, BA’91, Rahim Sajan, BSc’01, BEd’03, MEd’22 and Ashley Wanamaker, MC’17 .
We often best see ourselves when others share what shaped them - Our stories are lit by theirs.
Stepping into the limelight
Walking into the Drewitz Dance Productions ballet class for the first time, an 11-year-old girl wearing a black body suit and pink ballet tights, tall, awkward, and achingly the new kid, Ashley Wanamaker felt the eyes of parents watching her from behind a window in the big room. A wall mirror tracked her. Along another wall, a ballet bar beckoned. A chill in the room tightened her breath a bit, heightening that inward corkscrew feeling of I don’t belong.
Even though she was accomplished in music and competitive dance for her age, Wanamaker fought the urge to try a very un-ballet-like maneuver: turn, lunge and flee.
“I felt so weird and scared and out of my element,” says Wanamaker,
who as a child quickly learned to love ballet. It challenged her. It required discipline and focus. It squeezed anxiety from her body as she strained to make small movements that were rewarded with big gains in grace. It was, though she didn’t know it at the time, a kind of hands-on therapy that would inform her practice as a psychologist many years later. Like a good therapist, the ballet bar wasn’t a crutch. It was a guide.
“In ballet, you’re doing complicated and sometimes painful things, and you need direction,” says Wanamaker in her downtown office space for the Being Human Club, which she co-founded as a registered psychologist in 2021 with her fellow UCalgary alumni Carrie Le, MC’17, and Megan Kontrimas, MC’19. “Now, I can pull from what I’ve learned throughout my own life and training as a therapist to help others.”
There is no mirror in the brown-bricked room where she sits with her clients, no chilly air, no one peering in. There’s a large window, a brown leather couch, a wide white chair, green plants, and a blonde wood table with a pink Kleenex box.
Wanamaker focuses as a therapist on trauma, depression, anxiety, and grief. She specializes in eating disorders and body image concerns with adolescents and adult clients. She’s struggled with eating disorders in her past and knows the challenges and pain too well.
Her path lit by a desire to raise others up
She’s always felt a need to share with others and to help them.
“My family was blue collar with roots in farming,” says Wanamaker, who grew up in Calgary. “They instilled in me early on that we should try and help others when we can. I have early memories of making sandwiches for the Mustard Seed before going to kindergarten.”
When she was young, she’d use her allowance to buy gifts for others, so much so that it became a bit of a family joke. By the time she’d turned 16 years old, her family fractured, and her parents divorced. She was already a proficient musician and considered making a go of it professionally, but she also yearned for a more stable career to support herself.
She earned two scholarships to the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in New York for the 2008-09 academic year, where she started taking psychology courses as an elective. Then her eating disorder flared and derailed her plans.
“I was in really bad shape, and I felt that I wasn’t getting good treatment and that, really, is where I pivoted,” says Wanamaker. “That’s the beginning of when I decided I wanted to become a psychologist. I’m stubborn. I wanted to do something about it.”
She returned to Calgary, sought out treatment, went on to Concordia University in Montreal where she graduated with distinction in the honours psychology program, did her undergrad thesis in eating disorders, then completed her Masters at UCalgary. She launched Ashley Wanamaker Psychological Services in October 2017 and built her practice for the next couple of years.
Then the pandemic hit, forcing everyone into their own corners.
“Somehow, everyone, everywhere was in crisis all at once,” says Wanamaker, who began making short videos for her friends on TikTok and blew up so fast that she soon became known as “The Accidental Therapist,” with more than 50,000 followers on the platform today. “It changed everything.”
She’s excited to shine a light on mental health issues by being acknowledged on the Top 40 Under 40 list this year, using whatever recognition she’s accrued to pay it forward to others.
“We rise by lifting others,” she says. “Nothing is easy, we’re messy humans. The dedication and vulnerability I found in ballet is part of what I’m doing at this mental health centre.”
It’s difficult for anyone to accomplish anything without a helping hand, she says, and her path has been proof.
“I haven’t got here by myself. It has been with the support and knowledge and wisdom of other people. I’m further now than where I’d imagined I’d be years ago. I remain open to hope and committed to responsibility.”
Flight into a luminous future
It was the first time Rahim Sajan would be on a plane. On the way to the airport in Tanzania, the car that he, his mother and father and three siblings had squeezed into broke down, requiring a speedy rescue. Their suitcases were stuffed with clothes, spices, photo albums, everything they thought they’d need in their new home in Canada, all jammed to the maximum allowed weight for the flight.
Their papers for being admitted into the country were soon expiring. Time was ticking. The day was winding in his chest like a rickety old clock about to burst.
For the 15-year-old clad in a t-shirt, hoodie and his carefully chosen, most fashionable jeans, it wasn’t his blue-and-white plastic suitcase banging against his knee or the rush to get aboard or the carry-on bags that weighed heavily. It was the tremendous burden of responsibility as the eldest boy to land his family’s hopes and dreams successfully.
As they passed through Ethiopia, France and finally Pearson International Airport in Toronto, dragging their past with them into a cold and blustery day, the future sprung open. Sajan got his footing.
His story is an immigrant’s story, he says, and as such, it is viewed in the context of time, where what came before allows you to establish your sense of where you are now and, with hope, see what may lie ahead.
“I come from a long line of people who have travelled from India to Tanzania to Canada,” says Sajan, who arrived in Toronto in 1993 before moving to Calgary, where he was chosen a Top 40 Under 40 in 2016. “It is a generational story, where everyone has done their best so that the next generation can climb on their shoulders and go forward.”
Beyond the city to a better world
His achievements in Calgary often have a global reach. He’s an entrepreneur and the co-founder and curator of TEDx Calgary, he founded the Resourceful Human Project, he works as a teacher and off campus programs coordinator for the Calgary Board of Education in various schools, he’s volunteered as a workshop lead for the Global Encounters Programme, and he has been a member of the University of Calgary Senate.
In conversation, Sajan snatches famous quotes – from President John F. Kennedy, the Aga Khan, Sun Tzu -- examines them in the light of the moment, and then lets them go, so that he can float another idea.
“For of those to whom much is given, much is required,” says Sajan, echoing Kennedy and the notion that we are all global citizens who are at our best when we give back. This is the hub of his aim to move others ahead with whatever momentum he can create in his own life.
At its heart, TEDx Calgary is an empowerment mechanism, he says, helping other people to direct their dreams. More than 90 per cent of the TEDx Calgary team is comprised of immigrants.
“They are hungry to participate and they want to make a difference and they want to have a say,” says Sajan. “So, TEDx Calgary is a vehicle where they get empowered with skills and have a voice and can do things that benefit the entire city.”
Challenges help to define us and sometimes, dreams need to die and spring others ahead, he says. When he was an undergraduate at UCalgary, getting his first degree, in kinesiology, he was a Dino and yearned to be a track and field sprinter. What if, he thought, he could be an Olympian?
“Even though I was training with the best, I had to learn my own physical limits,” says Sajan, who gave up on that goal when he ran into the brick wall of just not being fast enough, and he moved on to other, more cerebral pursuits. “Afterwards, I celebrated the fact that I tried but maybe more importantly, I gained humility and a renewed respect for the power of experiential learning.”
He'd go on years later to try and secure a 2030 World Expo bid for Alberta, which eventually ran up on the rocks but helped him learn how to lever his connections with others toward goals that could benefit the community. The notion of connection to others – other people, other countries, other lofty ideas and plans with purpose – inspires his yearning for change that will benefit all.
“One thing I am very good at is building teams,” he says. “We build trust with each other as we try, as citizens, to accomplish things together. For me, citizen is a not a noun, it’s a verb.”
The world has accelerated with change since he was chosen a Top 40 Under 40 seven years ago and seemingly more so since his plane touched down in Toronto 30 years ago. He foresees many challenges ahead, climate change and global instability among them.
“As we deal with complex, modern issues, we must recognize that we are all flying, to some degree, by the seat of our pants,” says Sajan. “We are always learning how the world works. I know we can make it better.”
Raising a radiant antenna for the alternative voice
There were silver stools where you could perch and watch people drift past on 17th Avenue, though the bar was dimly lit and intimately arranged so that conversations bounced in the background like radio signals, everyone seemingly bent to the same vibrant wavelength of in-the-moment cool.
The Mercury was a creative hub in the mid-to-late 90s, its low-slung tables bathed in orange bar lights where architect Walker McKinley and upstart A-Channel stars and ad agency copywriters jostled for a favoured table in the corner. There was a lot of Guinness drank, a lot of gumbo eaten, a lot of chatter about the city’s accelerating music and arts scene.
For Ian Chiclo, who was grinding through 12-hour days keeping Calgary’s first alternative weekly, Fast Forward Weekly (FFWD), timely and thriving, the Mercury was his own, little piece of New York hiding in plain sight.
The chatter and energy and ambition made it a kind of black box for creatives and Chiclo, having already established his voice as a host on UCalgary campus radio station CJSW, and as editor for VOX Magazine from 1991-95, was at the centre of it.
“You met and got to know people quickly,” he says. “It was that kind of a place.”
Urban savvy with crystal clear intentions
He was among the first group of people chosen in the inaugural Top 40 under 40 in 1998 (and again in 2002), when FFWD was “still the scrappy rat on the street,” which he says really helped to shine the spotlight on the weekly within the city’s broader media landscape.
“What the recognition did for me, if there was any degree of celebrity, was kind of legitimize what we were doing at FFWD,” says Chiclo, who served as editor from 1995 to 2001, and publisher from 2001 for the next decade.
“Our crew was covering the arts and we weren’t afraid to be critical when we needed to be. We were working during a very exciting time in Calgary and we loved what we were doing, we loved our product and we loved the city.”
Already attuned to music in Calgary and beyond as local bands such as The Von Zippers and Forbidden Dimension and the Dino Martinis ascended in the 90s, Chiclo went on to serve as a board director for the Calgary Folk Music Festival for a dozen years, spending four of them as board chair.
Now a manager of digital content for Great West Media, he’s currently a bystander of sorts with the folk fest, but he still takes the odd long walk and chat with long-time artistic director Kerry Clarke, one of many people he keeps in touch with from his many years as a kind of cultural antenna for the city through his work in radio, print, video, online, television and film.
“My time at UCalgary taught me the value of networking,” says Chiclo, who served as a UCalgary Alumni Association board member for six years and maintains the entrepreneurial mindset he adopted as a student. He’s always seeking new opportunities. “My life today is filled with people I have worked with before, including many from the university.”
Perhaps what has changed the most in the past 25 years since being honoured on the Top 40 Under 40 list is that he has settled more into being at home in the community of Renfrew, where he has lived with his family for many years. He's always been community-minded and he’s still a self-described news junkie, reading eight or nine newspapers regularly.
“These days, I don’t go out as much,” he says. “I continue to have fun, most often with close friends and family, but I did a lot of stuff before and I don’t have that need to prove myself. I can always find magic on the bike path or in the mountains or at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary. For me, It’s still a magical time in the city, it’s just a different magic than before.”
Over 25 years, UCalgary has had more than 140 alumni, researchers, faculty and staff recognized as Top 40 Under 40. To learn more about the 25th anniversary event click here. To learn more about the 15 UCalgary alumni recognized in 2023 click here.
Meet the entire 2023 cohort of Top 40 Under 40 Recipients at: avenuecalgary.com
Do you know an inspiring or impactful UCalgary alum? Consider nominating them for Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 at: top40under40.com