When Vanessa Memeh arrived in Canada from Nigeria five years ago, winning a scholarship to attend university was beyond her imagination.
“I think people may assume winning the Loran award is something I would have been working toward all along,” said Memeh, who hopes to major in medical physics. “But I didn’t even know there was such a thing until just days before the application deadline.”
After applying “just to see what happened,” Memeh successfully progressed through five intense rounds of interviews and was chosen, out of nearly 5,000 candidates across the country, as one of 36 students to receive the prestigious award.
Looking to merge her passion for equity and social justice with her interest in health care, “it is my goal to use all the Loran award has to offer to give back to my community and make a positive impact on the world,” Memeh said.
The Loran award: recognizing character, service and leadership
The Loran Scholars Foundation is a national charity that works in partnership with universities, donors and volunteers throughout the country to find and nurture young people who demonstrate character, service and leadership.
Each Loran award is valued at more than $100,000, including an annual stipend of $11,000 and a tuition waiver from Western, access to $14,000 in funding for summer work experiences, one-on-one mentorship and annual retreats and scholar gatherings.
“Receiving this award speaks to my belief that when you put in work, there will be tangible effects down the road,” Memeh said. “It’s also an investment in my future. It sees me for who I am right now, and who I can be four years down the road. But four years ago, I never thought this was possible.”
Memeh and her mother and two younger siblings emigrated to Hamilton, Ont. in late 2018. Life in a new country, an “ocean away” from her extended family, was challenging.
“I came from a country where most people look like me and where we have similar cultures,” Memeh said. “Then I moved to a country where I don’t see many people who look like me and on a cultural level, I didn’t feel I could really connect. It took me a bit of time to assimilate. Some part of me thought, in this geographical space I’m in, there’s not much I can contribute, because I never really saw women and people of colour in positions of influence or power. I thought there was not much I could do here.”
Her perspective shifted while attending Cathedral High School in Hamilton. She calls the Cathedral community “a relay to my success,” crediting her principal Mark Daly and history teacher Darrell D’Souza for encouraging her to be true to her passions and embrace new opportunities.
“My teachers helped me understand my different experience is not a barrier or hindrance to my putting something out in the world. Instead, it’s my greatest asset. I homed in on that during my last years of my high school journey. And now, I’m here.” – Loran scholar, Vanessa Memeh
Memeh overcame her initial shyness, joining student council and working with the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic School Board anti-racism committee. She also chaired the Cathedral Gael Guides, a group that builds school spirit and organizes initiatives to bridge the gap between international and local students.
While holding a part-time job, Memeh was part of the school’s media team and volunteered at a food bank. She also served as youth advisor for People for Education and as a content collaborator for UpstartED, where she ensured publications represented young people and promoted equity, diversity and inclusivity.
Memeh is driven by the desire “to give back to the big sacrifice my parents made, because it has not been an easy journey. But it is one I like to approach with an open mind, an open perspective ─ and persistence, a value my mom instilled in me.”
Upon arriving in Canada, Memeh’s mother went to school to train to become a personal support worker, taking up her first job working in long-term care during the pandemic.
“It’s been so interesting to see my mom grow,” Memeh said. “She came here not knowing English but chose to push and persist regardless, even learning her course material in a different language. Now she’s on the front lines of long-term care.”
While inspired watching her mother, Memeh also witnessed first-hand the impact the pandemic had on the wellbeing of overworked health care workers and on patient care.
“In Nigeria, we idealize health care in first-world countries. But I noticed the same lack of health-care access here that was, and still is, very prominent back home. COVID only highlighted that in more depth – the lack of support, the cracks in the system,” she said.
“But I also believe that if an issue can be highlighted, the issue can be solved. I’ve always been interested in equity, social justice and health care. My big goal is to run a hospital some day and if I can be part of the solutions, even in a small way, I would be honoured and proud.”
Memeh joins three other Loran scholars currently studying at Western: Abygail Montague, Stephanie Urena Rodriguez and Megan Matlock. Patrick Hickey, HBA’19, who became a Rhodes Scholar in 2019, also came to Western as a Loran Scholar.