Student turns personal challenge into global advocacy

Paul Mayne // Western News

First-year Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry student Gunjan Mhapankar’s community advocacy led her to Buckingham Palace and a meet-and-greet with Queen Elizabeth this past June, as one of only two Canadians to win a Queen’s Young Leaders award.

As a 15-year-old new to Canada, Gunjan Mhapankar frequently faced those “why am I here” moments. It was not that her new home in Vancouver was foreign to her. She simply missed the social support of her former home.

However, instead of surrendering to that feeling, the now first-year Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry student did something to address it. Since then, her life has been a whirlwind of honours and, yes, even visits with the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace.

“I found there were a lot of support services. I just didn’t know about them. There was simply a lack of awareness in the community,” she said. “A lot of the time, the supports are relatively small and there is a lot of miscommunication and fragmentation. I found them serving only certain areas.”

Because of her personal experience, Mhapankar related to those in similar circumstances seeking to access services. As a way to learn more about her new community, and her new country, she began volunteering “to get to know people” at organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, Science World and BC211, a nonprofit organization specializing in providing free information and referral regarding community, government and social services.

Mhapankar, a Microbiology and Immunology student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) at the time, agreed to lead a three-day project to raise awareness as to why young people were not accessing social services in the community. Simply using iPhones and recording youth sharing their experiences, she created the Digital Storytelling Project.

“Accessing social support is something not everybody does and it doesn’t reflect badly on you if you do access that support – it exists for a reason,” she explained.

Eliminating fear and uncertainty involved in accessing services has helped empower marginalized groups within the community to be their own advocates for change, Mhapankar said. The project opened her eyes, as well.

“We got a huge, positive response with the idea. So I went back and said, ‘What about taking this a step further and getting the organizations involved as well?’” said Mhapankar, who received a $10,000 Chapman Innovation Grant from UBC. “We talked to social workers and organizations and gave them the chance to share their stories about their passion and the work they do, which they have since used in creating funding opportunities for themselves.”

That community advocacy led Mhapankar to the steps of Buckingham Palace, after she was nominated for a Queen’s Young Leaders Award. The award celebrates exceptional young people (18-29 years of age) taking the lead in their communities and using their skills to transform lives.

Sixty awards are presented worldwide, with only two slated for Canadian youth. Mhapankar wrote five essays about her work in the community, followed by numerous phone calls, Skype interviews and emails. Then, one dark, chilly Vancouver winter morning, she got the news.

“I figured it was another round of interviews on Skype. But at the end, after a bunch more questions, they told me, ‘Okay, sounds good, you’re one of the Canadian winners,” Mhapankar said. “I told them, ‘I’m going to say thank you really quickly so you don’t take it back.’”

The award culminated in a visit with the Royal Family.

“It was strange. I really felt at ease speaking to (Prince) Harry and the Queen. That week was so emotional and inspirational,” said Mhapankar of her visit to the United Kingdom in June. “It was great. It’s also lot of pressure. I don’t think advocacy is going away for me. Advocacy is a huge component of medicine and being a doctor, so I would love to be able to work on a global scale. International community health really speaks to me.”

Mhapankar is also taking a yearlong course through Cambridge University on leading change. She recently spoke at the One Young World Summit, held this past month in Ottawa, where she shared her story with more than 1,300 youth from 196 countries.

Throughout her journey, Mhapankar has tried to pinpoint that ‘a-ha’ moment that sparked her community advocacy. Perhaps, she said, when she moved to Canada she was old enough to remember the experience she came from and reflect on where she wanted to go next.

Now 21, Mhapankar continues to learn where her work will fit into the world.

“How can I make those making the decisions see the struggles of the people at the grassroots level, influence policy changes and create work that has a much bigger impact?” she asked. “At that point, somewhere, I chose that I wanted to do this – wanted to help people, as cheesy as that sounds. Sometimes you don’t plan your life. But when you look back, you think maybe this is why I did that.”

That same passion and desire to make a difference is in all of us, she stressed.

“A lot of the hesitations of my friends, or even some of the people in the community, are like, ‘I’m not a refugee, I’m not an Aboriginal, I’m not HIV positive, so I don’t have that strong personal narrative to compel me to do things.’ I have a problem with that,” Mhapankar explained. “You don’t need to have personal struggles to empathize with others; you don’t need lived experiences to be able to build a relationship. I constantly try to remind myself and the people around me that you don’t need to be great to start, you need to start to be great.”

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Visit to hear first-year Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry student Gunjan Mhapankar share her story at the One Young World Summit in Ottawa.