Demo Kaltabanis stared in awe as he stepped inside his residence room at Saugeen-Maitland Hall four years ago.
“For the first time in my life, I had access to my own bed, my own desk and a quiet space,” he said.
The room stood in vast contrast to what the Markham, Ont. native experienced growing up in a 700-square-foot apartment with his parents, two brothers and grandmother. There, he studied at a wobbly kitchen table. He and his siblings slept on couch cushions and foam mattresses, rolled out each night on the living room floor.
“It’s not to say that life at home was bad—it was good,” Kaltabanis said, noting his parents provided lots of love and the best resources they could afford. “It was just distracting. The noise and lack of personal space meant I wasn’t able to concentrate for sustained periods of time.”
In his early years of high school, he fell behind, struggling with the stigma of poverty and decreased self-esteem.
But by his final year, while working 22 hours a week, he achieved a 91 per cent average and acceptance into Western’s nursing program.
He’s now one of approximately 8,000 students graduating this spring, joining more than 355,000 alumni from more than 160 countries.
The knowledge he gained earning his BScN has had a profound impact on how he views others – and himself. It’s also given him the opportunity to shine as a leader and an advocate, while making meaningful contributions to the education of future nurses.
Within two weeks of living in residence, Kaltabanis noticed a marked improvement in his study habits. And as he dove into his course material, he made other life-changing observations.
“I began learning about the social determinants of health like income and access to education and transportation – all the factors beyond the hospital bed that can contribute to a patient’s wellbeing and model of care.”
This knowledge helped Kaltabanis better understand his parents’ addiction to nicotine.
“Growing up, I was so frustrated by their habit of smoking. I couldn’t understand why they did it. I would take their cigarettes and step on them, hide them, throw them out. I did everything in my power to try to get them to stop this habit, but they didn’t,” he said.
“It wasn’t until that first year of university where I really started to understand it’s not necessarily their fault. It’s more of a byproduct of the low poverty environment they grew up in. They had individuals around them who were smoking. It was an inevitable habit. If they didn’t smoke, they were the outlier.”
Applying the principles he learned about harm reduction, Kaltabanis began working with his parents on a smoking cessation plan, having them log the number of cigarettes they smoked each day.
“Rather than stigmatizing them and being upset with them, I started empowering them and showing them ways they can work through it. We’ve been working slowly, month by month, and their consumption is down by 50 per cent.”
Kaltabanis also began to apply what he was learning to his own choices and thoughts.
“In the same way I began to understand my parents, I started to understand myself,” he said.
He realized his socioeconomic status had once caused him to make false, limiting assumptions about his academic abilities, outcomes, and future. Instead of continuing to hide his experience with poverty, he began embracing it, even sharing his story at TEDxWesternU, this past March, to encourage students facing similar challenges.
Embracing every opportunity
Kaltabanis experienced another transformative moment when he received the Audrey Metzler Memorial Award at the end of his first year. The bursary allowed him to quit the part-time job he lined up ahead of his arrival in London to help cover the gap not covered by his OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program) funding.
He had been working to reduce his financial burden on his family since he was 13 years old. Now, for the first time in his life, he had the financial freedom to explore extracurricular activities, embracing every opportunity presented to him.
“In high school, I always wanted to be part of student council, but I didn’t have the time. I did not want that to happen again.”
He became an active member of the Western Fanshawe Nursing Student Association (WFNSA) and was successfully elected to multiple leadership roles. He was the undergraduate representative of the Decolonization, Anti-racism and Anti-oppression (DARAO) committee, and the WFNSA equity officer, which became vice-president, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Decolonization (EDID). During his term on WFNSA, he made it a requirement that the student elected as the future VP, EDID will also be required to sit as a representative on DARAO to ensure there is a student presence.
Recognized as a leader in the classroom and highly respected among his peers, Kaltabanis was invited to be part of the school of nursing’s curriculum review committee.
“I thought it was amazing, because they actually allowed a student to be part of this process. I was able to survey students to find out what they liked and what they wanted to see implemented. We’ve been able to incorporate that student voice into creating this new curriculum to address any gaps,” he said.
Amy Horton, associate director of undergraduate programs, is one of seven academics working with Kaltabanis on the committee. She says he stands out – and not because he’s the only student on the panel.
“Demo’s presence at the meetings is so valuable because he gives great thought to his responses and input,” she said. “When he speaks, we listen, because he makes great points. We all look at him and his abilities in awe. Everybody who has worked with him has the same opinion.
“What’s also impressive is his interest in making a difference in the curriculum – not for himself, but for other students. Anything we were doing wasn’t going to impact him, he’s graduated. This is about him wanting to improve the curriculum for the experience of others.”
Excited for the Future
As Kaltabanis looks to the future, he also reflects on his past.
“Thinking back on where I’ve come from, and my mindset from those days, I was just focused on getting by tomorrow, getting by the week,” he said. “In high school, I was just focused on saving up enough money so I could pay for my university applications. Then, it was saving to pay the residence deposit. It was always really short-term thinking. I still have financial concerns, but now I’m able to think further ahead.”
He’s already landed his first paid nursing job, working part-time in a rural Ontario emergency room while also studying for his Medical College Admission Test, following his dream to one day become a family physician. He plans to continue to work this fall, in balance with pursuing a master of science in nursing degree at Western. Under the supervision of nursing dean Vicki Smye, he’s focusing his graduate research on vaping, buoyed by the impact of the harm reduction work he’s witnessed through his parents.
“I’m interested in why individuals are still interested in consuming nicotine in 2023, and how the design of vaping devices seems to cater to adolescents,” Kaltabanis said. “Kids are vaping and the devices they are using to consume nicotine are aesthetically pleasing in cool, monochrome or pastel colours. They want to take photos with them and show their friends. I’ve had individuals tell me taking pictures with their vapes is how they interact socially. I really want to discover more about this phenomenon. How much is the vaporizer device contributing to an addiction? For example, if the government had mandated all vapes to look like a cigarette, would people still be vaping?”
He’s also looking forward to working as a teaching assistant for Horton next semester – an idea that also excites Horton.
“We are going to be able to do so many great things because he has such wonderful ideas,” she said.
“Demo has that spark in him. He has the thought capacity. He embraces every opportunity and that’s a sign of someone who is going to go far. He has goodness in him. The world will be in good hands with Demo.”