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U of T student earns royal welcome and meets the Queen at Buckingham Palace

Kevin Vuong was named a Queen's Young Leader and accepted an award from Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace (photo courtesy of BCA)

Kevin Vuong was named a Queen's Young Leader for working to reduce unemployment

It wasn’t until he was inside Buckingham Palace and meeting members of the Royal Family that reality set in for U of T's Kevin Vuong – he was about to shake hands with the Queen.

“I rehearsed the bow in my head 100 times while I was waiting,” he said.

Vuong, a student in the Faculty of Law’s Global Professional Master of Laws (GPLLM) program, was one of two Canadians who received the Queen’s Young Leaders award this year, which recognizes young people across the Commonwealth for outstanding community service. The Queen’s Young Leaders program says Vuong was commended for working to reduce unemployment.

Vuong is a board member, volunteer and one-time advocate for youth at Toronto City Hall. He co-founded an organization that works to create urban infrastructure that doubles as works of art. The group is now working with residents of Lawrence Heights to build aesthetically-pleasing bike racks. He also is working closely with the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation in creating an Indigenous social enterprise incubator for the community.

At the awards ceremony last week, Vuong, who is a reservist in the Royal Canadian Navy, wore his white officer’s uniform. Although he felt nervous, his navy training helped him keep his cool, he recalled. 

He sat in the third row along with other winners from South Africa, Nigeria and New Zealand. 

As Vuong was waiting in the investiture room of the palace, where people are typically knighted, Prince Harry flashed him a reassuring smile, he said.

When Vuong’s name was called, he walked a few metres to greet Her Majesty and receive a silver medal. Although he expected nothing more than a quick handshake, he and the Queen exchanged a few words about his community work.

“The way you know the conversation is over is Her Majesty extends her hand and then very subtly – you can’t see it if you’re in the audience – she pushes you away,” he said.

“It was very firm and graceful, as befitting the Queen.”

The ceremony was the first event ever live streamed from the palace on Facebook.

“The Queen’s Young Leaders award recognizes what these incredible young people have achieved not for themselves but for others – for their peers, for their communities, for the environment and for those less fortunate,” Prince Harry told the winners.

Many of Vuong’s friends and family tuned into the live stream. Those who didn’t watch were a little skeptical: “Pics, or it didn’t happen,” they joked. 

The award reassured Vuong that he had made the right choice when he left a job in banking after business school for a career in social entrepreneurship.

“I don’t think any of us do this work in the hopes that we get a medal,” he said, but “there are always moments when you wonder if you made the right decision.”

Vuong talks to Metro Toronto about designating a week to celebrate youth

Vuong has also co-founded an agency that is working with the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation to establish “Canada’s first on-reserve indigenous social enterprise incubator and community hub.”

Ramona Sault, general manager at Thunderbird Trust in the First Nation, said Vuong had been very supportive trying to access funding for the project. Although in the early stages, they expect to break ground in 2019.

“He’s a guy with a good heart,” she said.