Heba Shahaed was named the 2017 recipient of Meridian’s Commitment to Communities Sean Jackson Scholarship for her work creating mental health initiatives for her fellow students during exams, and leading an innovative intergenerational project called “Let’s Talk! Oral History Aurora” with the Aurora Historical Society. Meridian recently caught up with the McMaster Health Science undergraduate student to learn how she continues to be a community advocate through innovative problem solving.
Can you share a bit about your amazing story of using creativity to address social issues in your community?
I think it’s important to focus on how you can make something better instead of focusing too much on the issue itself. You can offend people if you are only focused on the problem, but prioritizing the outcome changes the conversation to how you can make a positive change. When I led the Empowering Students Committee at my school, we knew a big issue was the stress students were experiencing during exam periods. We identified a gap, and came up with a solution. We created help kits with snacks, school supplies, motivational quotes and community resources available to those in need.
You have demonstrated a strong commitment to improving your community through innovation, like your time spent leading an intergenerational oral history project. Where do you think you got your entrepreneurial spirit from?
I am very lucky to have benefitted from mentorship in my life. Sometimes I would question or doubt myself, but then I would look at people in my community who had interesting ideas and were making exciting things happen. It inspired me to continue to push myself. I learned so much from the leaders in my community, that when it came time for me to take on a leadership role, I felt confident in my ability to do so.
Do you think your positive experience with your own mentors is why you are so passionate and committed to fostering mentorship yourself?
Definitely! I have benefitted both from being mentored and as a result of acting as a mentor to others. I believe in the power of mentorship so strongly that I know I will continue to promote and foster it throughout my life - we all have so much we can learn from others and offer others in return.
I think one of the reasons mentorship has been important to me is because of my experience as a second-generation Canadian. My extended family is in India, so our support system in Canada was fairly small and consists of very close family friends. As the oldest of four kids, my mentors gave me important role models to look up to.
You were involved with many initiatives in the Aurora community, like the Aurora History Society, and Youth Engagement Committee. How are these initiatives currently doing?
When we were creating our events and programs, the committees tried to ensure they were as sustainable as possible by creating a constitution, and empowering and educating everyone who was involved. It was very important to me that the programs we created at my school continued to support students, like the Stress Kits during exam periods. I would have still been proud of our efforts if these initiatives had only lasted for a year, but you know you’ve made a real difference when something continues to help people in the future.
Last year we had over 200 applicants for the Meridian’s Commitment to Communities Sean Jackson scholarship and you were chosen as the 2017 winner. How has winning an award like this had an impact on you and your studies?
Receiving the award helped me decide to go to McMaster and allowed me to live on campus. Living in residence is expensive, so the scholarship allowed me to focus more of my time on my studies and community activities, which I have been grateful for. But the recognition I got from the award encouraged me to keep working towards my passion for helping others and getting involved in my community.
We know you are planning on eventually becoming a doctor, but what are your goals for the next 5 years?
Right now I am focused on doing well in my program and staying involved in the community as much as I can. Currently, I am volunteering at the hospital, I participate in HOSA Canada, I am a representative for the McMaster Science Society, and I plan events through the Women and Leadership Council in my residence. Next year I want to take on some leadership roles for the clubs, groups and volunteer work I am involved in.
Becoming a doctor is still in my long term goals, but this year I participated in the Impact Project at McMaster, which was definitely an eye opening experience for me. This event brings together students from a variety of STEM programs to design assistive devices for people with disabilities in the Hamilton community. It helped me understand some of the other ways I can use my science knowledge and skills to help people and have an amazing impact on people’s lives.
You have had many accomplishments and continue to be involved in many different programs and projects at school and at home. What has helped keep you focused and motivated to continue to succeed at school and stay involved in your community?
I try to stay as organized as possible by planning out my schedule each week. This allows me to fit in my studies, volunteer work, and personal commitments. I also try to make sure I am taking care of my health, because if I’m not feeling well, I am not able to give 100% to my studies or community involvement activities.
And finally, staying focused on the people you are helping can keep you motivated to continue. For instance, seeing the client of the Impact Project take her assistive device home and talk about how it transformed her life made all the time we spent on the project worthwhile.
A lot of your past volunteer work was focused on changing the perception that people in your town had about youth in your community. Many people think young people are self-involved but you are an example of a young person that is committed to building a better world for yourself and future generations. Why do you think some people have this perception of young people?
I had a really positive high school experience. I think teenagers are portrayed in the media a certain way, and while this portrayal may be true for a handful of kids, all of the students I know are compassionate and work to have an impact on the broader world around them.
For youth who aren’t involved, knowing some adults feel this way about them can discourage them. It takes people giving young people a chance to share their stories, like Meridian is doing today, to change people’s opinions. My classmates and I work really hard on our studies and our community work, but if no one is acknowledging it or drawing attention to it, the negative stereotypes will continue.
I want to let other youth know it’s never too late to get involved. We need lots of different ideas, experiences and perspectives to truly change things, so everyone has the ability to contribute and make a difference.
Meridian's Commitment to Communities Sean Jackson Scholarship is an annual $10,000 award designed to recognize an Ontario high school graduate who has demonstrated both academic excellence and an outstanding commitment to communities of their own, including community initiative, innovation and impact among Ontario youth. Learn more about the scholarship.