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From empowering youth to improving health care: Two undergraduates seek to make their mark

Faculty of Arts & Science undergraduate students Ashwini Selvakumaran and Jolie Gan received Diana Awards for their humanitarian efforts (photos courtesy of Selvakumaran and Gan)

Still an undergraduate student, Ashwini Selvakumaran has advocated for youth, and founded organizations that aim to amplify the voices of marginalized people. Jolie Gan, only in her first year at the University of Toronto, established a national non-profit that seeks to increase youth visibility in law and promote access to justice. 

Both students in U of T's Faculty of Arts & Science say childhood experiences steered them toward advocacy at an early age – and their respective impacts have already garnered international accolades. 

Selvakumaran and Gan were among the 10 winners in Canada of a Diana Award, a prestigious prize named after Diana, Princess of Wales for youth aged nine to 25 recognizing extraordinary social action and humanitarian work. 

The daughter of a United Nations diplomat, Selvakumaran said her upbringing in Yemen and Kazakhstan heightened her awareness of gender inequality and the lack of access to education for minority groups.

“We were constantly on the move because of my father’s work,” she recalled. “That was difficult. But when I got older, I realized that those experiences gave me a unique, global perspective.”

After coming to Canada for high school, she took an interest in helping others by taking a grassroots approach. “What kickstarted my advocacy was a need to engage the voices that needed to be validated the most,” she said.

The peace, conflict and justice studies major in the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and member of St. Michael's College at U of T has worked with a number of non-profits, including the Iroquoia Bruce Trail Club, Plan International Canada and the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace. She's also been instrumental in establishing organizations both within the university and beyond, including the Brown Citizen Circle, which aims to create opportunities for Black, Indigenous and South Asian youth. 

Last summer, she led her team in raising over $10,000 for a national youth social policy case competition.

In 2020, as the recipient of U of T's COVID-19 Engagement Award, she produced an e-book with fellow student Aishwarya Patel that recorded youth perspectives on the pandemic around the world. Proceeds from the book went to frontline health-care workers.

Selvakumaran describes the book as an antidote to the despair that she and others were feeling at the outset of the pandemic. “Every single person we interviewed had a positive outlook, and saw COVID-19 as an opportunity to attack issues that need attention: even our youngest interviewee, who was only 11 years old. Just doing the book changed my own perspective so much,” she said.

Selvakumaran told Inside Halton that she was shocked to receive the Diana Award. “I never pursue advocacy work with the intention of winning an award, but I was nominated by three people and I’m so happy that they were touched by what I’ve done and felt it was important enough (to receive this award),” she said.

Gan, a Trinity College student who hasn't yet declared a major, said she took an interest in advocacy after her mom suffered a brain aneurysm. During her mom's recovery, Gan was required to juggle schoolwork while looking after her infant siblings, an experience that exposed gaps in Canada's health-care system.

“I saw how there wasn’t a lot of support for families, especially for young people, immigrants and people of colour. But I realized that there was no point in sitting around and not taking action,” she said.

Now, she says, her goal is “to become a health policymaker or lawyer, and create sustainable change in our health-care system.”

Gan says her parents' backgrounds as immigrants to Canada from Malaysia and Hong Kong also inspired her to promote youth access to education.

"I always hear stories like back when they were in their home countries about how they had to work long hours and their parents had to work day and night just to support them, you know, going abroad and also pursuing their studies. So that's really close to my heart," she told CBC

She's served on the RCMP's youth advisory committee, and held volunteer policy positions with the United Nations, Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation. She has also worked as a health-law researcher at the University of Calgary. She's currently completing a global health policy and anti-poverty fellowship with Results Canada, and has been hired as a student employee to assess risk, risk management and policy with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

As the founding president of Youth Leaders in Law, a non-profit that seeks to diversify the law profession and help youth kickstart legal careers, she has helped connect 1,000 students in 11 countries with a wealth of mentorship opportunities and information.

Gan describes the Diana Award as a “huge honour,” noting that the awards presentation gave her the opportunity to meet changemakers from other countries. “It was a phenomenal experience,” she said.

Due to graduate this year, Selvakumaran says there's no time like the present to help others. “No avenue is too small," she says, "because everything you do can contribute to something bigger and more sustainable.”

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