Pilot a glider. Buy a lottery ticket. Get a driver’s license. These are all of the things I will be able to do when I turn 16. 

It’s these little freedoms that make growing up exhilarating. When I turned 15, I began my Amazon search for a glider in preparation for my 16th birthday. As I reflected on turning 16, I came to realize was that I am more than just a teenager. I have opinions on politics, I’ve purchased coffee with my own money, I do laundry, I have ambitions, and I have hands to make them possible. What’s to stop me from breaking the world record for eating the most hot dogs in a minute or finding a cure for diabetes? 

I expected my passion to find me after university, because of the idea that a conventional path leads to conventional happiness. 

However, if there’s anything I’ve learned over the past 12 months, it’s that pushing the boundaries in what I’m capable of and how I touch the lives of others is the best feeling ever. 

As a teenager, I’ve tried to be an active “do-er”. In this blog, I wanted to share a few things my community and experiences have taught me about being a youth activist and do-er.

Perspective

Many of my friends and family believed that the only way I could succeed as a student was by focusing on my grades. I recognize the dedication good grades show, but I’ve come to see that I am more than just a student at school. I’m a student everywhere. My real world experiences are an extension to my education, not an afterthought. As I took on passion projects, from starting Eye Hope Canada (a not-for-profit dedicated to the fight against childhood eye cancer) to running a STEM showcase, I came to realize that it’s not about resume building but passion building. Future careers aren’t built around the need to repeat facts from a textbook, but being able to apply skills and create something meaningful. Gaining these experiences helped me find my passion: solving problems using STEM. Ultimately, these experiences gave me perspective on what my role is as “Vanessa.”

Creativity

For many, myself included, the challenge is transforming our passion into something tangible. Something my SHAD program director said was “Ideas aren’t UFOs. They don’t fall from the sky.” Passions are directed by the need to solve problems; it’s just a matter a fixating on one and solving it. This moment came to me when I realized that even though I loved STEM, I didn’t know what STEM looked like in the real-world. My solution? I sent emails to 60 labs asking for a chance to gain research experience. Despite believing that no one would reply, I found an amazing teacher who believed in my skills and helped me flourish. I’ve spent the past summer learning more about biomedical engineering and fetal MRI. It was the best summer ever. Ideas aren’t UFOs and they don’t just fall from the sky. They require you to meticulously plan and scale the “impossible” down to something feasible.

Critical Thinking Skills

Starting Eye Hope Canada, taking part in research, or anything I’ve ever done where I had to think larger than myself has changed the way I ask questions forever. When the EHC team and I started brainstorming fundraising events, I realized very quickly that it wasn’t as easy as saying “let’s run a campaign and poof!” Part of being a leader is taking the initiative to break down the nitty gritty and think cohesively. Will the donations provide financial support or driving services to appointments? Will it provide long-term support? Critical thinking skills go beyond getting the action done, but how can we do the action better. Does it mean asking my team questions instead of waiting for them to ask me, or spending an extra hour making weekly meeting materials? Critical thinking skills are developed when solving real world problems, and you can’t get more real world than when helping your community.

These three life skills were taught to me because I created these opportunities for myself. Be an active doer. Join a club at your school, start a club at your school, read science articles in your free time, or put that idea floating in your head into action. The possibilities are endless. My accomplishments aren’t Nobel Laureate worthy, but it’s not about how “big” the accomplishments are, but whether or not you can look back and be proud of them. Be bigger than your high-school self because an unconventional path can lead to unconventional success.

Good luck!