TOPTAL SCHOLARSHIP BLOG

My vision surrounds advocacy, support, and empowerment for marginalized individuals. My plan is three fold: (1) Community Engagement, (2) Innovative Research, (3) Meaningful Mentorship.


As an active youth leader at age 14 with the Big Brothers of Greater Vancouver, I met Thomas, an at-risk youth who had difficulty making friends in elementary school. As an Executive of Student Council at age 16, I met Hallie, a grade 7 student who was terrified of high school. As a global citizen at age 19, I met Elizabeth, a high school student who asked me to tell her how scary university really is. What do Thomas, Hallie, Elizabeth, and I have in common? We are all children of immigrants. Children of immigrants have pressure to become successful to make their parents sacrifices, like leaving their home country, worthwhile. My family settled in Surrey, which is home to 71,838 students. 27 of the schools that students attend are designated inner city where low average incomes, high ESL, single parent family rates, and low standardized test scores challenge staff daily to address both the basic needs of students and their educational departments. Students within inner-city schools experience a lack of support in the transition from high school to post-secondary school. I went to one of those schools. My transformational experiences shaped my goals and my drive for academic excellence, attitudes towards teaching and learning, and approach to leadership. This is why I pursued becoming a Research Assistant in Public Health, as education and health are directly connected. 

Through this I witnessed that change on an individual level is momentous, but sometimes lacking. For example, I know several inner-city students (ICS), first generation university students (FGUS), and students with mental illness (SWMI), that feel that their background/experiences are barriers to their success. ICS and FGUS may feel that their skills are inadequate due to their educational upbringing. For SWMI, the stigma of mental illness brings an attitude of not being good enough. These experiences are reasons why I am pursuing a Master of Science in Experimental Medicine in order to help students at a foundational level through education and health. Not only do I and other students, need to learn and grow into stronger leaders and advocates, but we must become a society of change makers to engage in action around issues of parity and who are working towards shifts in policy, especially in educational governance and health care. I have started integrating myself in such communities through the Surrey Youth Council, UBC’s Science Undergraduate Society, and BC’s Patient Safety and Quality Council. 

As a first generation to apply for university, I had minimal guidance. Acting as a change maker, I connected with my high school principal in my second year at UBC. She connected me with the Surrey School District. Together, I worked with educators and community members to create Empower The Future (ETF), a non-profit organization that aims to promote personal, professional, and academic growth through mentorship. Our main project is the Life After High School Project. We want inner-city students to get help from someone who has been there and done that. Students are mentored on five main topics through a workshop in their school such as dealing with financial stress; finding credible information about post-secondary education; preparing to enter the workforce; searching for volunteer opportunities; and caring for yourself. Through this initiative, ETF has been able to help over 700 students overcome their post- secondary challenges in six different schools in the Lower Mainland. I continue to visit these schools each year to ensure inner-city students have the same opportunities as others, to learn more about the difficulties youth encounter, and work in partnership with them to build solutions. My goal is for all students to build the necessary skills to feel comfortable in post- secondary school and for post-secondary schools to provide more support for incoming students.


In August 2015, I was 1 in 5 Canadians struck by generalized anxiety disorder. A particular day that haunts me is November 12, 2015. I was leaving my parent’s home for my Quantum Mechanics midterm. I told myself you’re just nervous and reluctantly pulled out of the driveway. My heart pounded harder each kilometer away from home. I felt extremely nauseous. Anxiety was keeping me company during this lonely ride to the University of British Columbia. I continued on to Highway 91 and drove over the Alex Fraser Bridge with my sweatpants soaked in tears. My symptoms deepened – Anxiety told me I was going to die. Once I crossed the Oak Street Bridge, I vomited while making a left turn. My trembling hands forced me to pull over. Oxygen escaped me. I was having a severe panic attack. I needed help. My friends and family supported me while health professionals provided life-saving medication. Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone.

 Institutions often recognize inclusion and diversity as values. However, one of Canada’s greatest challenges in education is offering sufficient accessibility to students who are disabled, especially those with invisible disabilities. Often faculties are open to accommodating students, but when a student has a unique accommodation request, they are often denied. Students with disabilities (SWD) are too often painted with the same brush. Additionally, SWD face social obstacles such as stigma, lack of understanding, and abled privilege. Accommodations must test ableist conventions and create specific accommodations for SWD. While many of these challenges are stemmed from societal issues, there are a few solutions that can help with this issue. Policy makers can be given evidence-based information about systematic changes and increase the participation of SWD in the community or institution. I began working on this by collecting evidence-based information from secondary students through my own research project in the Lower Mainland. Awareness is also key. Healthy and frequent communication between post-secondary instructors and students is a step towards defeating stigma among campuses. While instructors are focused on the academic well-being of students, their mental well-being is directly associated with it. I was lucky to have supportive friends and family, but a student may rely on an instructor to be the one to say it’s okay to feel this way. Change requires critical inspection of current procedures. By including SWD in our governance, policy making, regular conversations, we are choosing to challenge traditional standards and ableist expectations. Let’s take the challenge. 

Recently, we started a new initiative called Women in STEM to motivate more women in STEM fields. Our success through ETF has gained partnerships with UBC, SFU, KPU, City of Surrey, City of Burnaby, Vancouver Foundation, Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Canadian Federal Government. My goal is for students to build the necessary skills to feel comfortable in post-secondary school and for post-secondary schools to provide more support for incoming students. Our current feedback shows that 96% of students who attended workshops felt the workshops were helpful in high school preparedness. 

As a Toptal Scholar, I will build upon the inspiration that women in technology have given me by collaborating with innovative researchers and organizations and helping students receive mentorship to obtain quality opportunities in technology. With my current volunteer work with inner-city students, my experience in research with technology and health care, and my commitment to helping others, I imagine that I will be able to act as a voice of Toptal and its mentors to support women in Technology through my Women in STEM project which aims to build connections and encourage inner-city female students in STEM careers to limit gaps in their transition to higher education. Each discipline has specific information for admission to programs, challenges as a woman in non-traditional careers, community specific support, and inspiring women who practiced in the field. Furthermore, students and presenters involved in conversation regarding the importance of mentorship and finding a mentor who identifies as the same gender, culture, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. To build on the topic of mentorship, a final wrap up event is held as a career café where students connect with female undergraduate students and professionals in various fields. As a pilot project, the Women in STEM project holds promise in developing meaningful connections with female prospective students in STEM and providing motivation and support for pursuing higher education. Through the Toptal Scholarship Program, I will learn skills to share among colleagues while building a network that can further improve my outreach work with marginalized individuals and bring my vision and plans to action.

TOPTAL SCHOLARSHIP BLOG

By Shawna Narayan

Medal of Good Citizenship, Province of British Columbia, Canada
Master of Science Candidate, Experimental Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia
Bachelor of Science, Physics and Astronomy, Faculty of Science, University of British Columbia

My vision surrounds advocacy, support, and empowerment for marginalized individuals. My plan is three fold: (1) Community Engagement, (2) Innovative Research, (3) Meaningful Mentorship. Below you can read more about my experiences, my projects, and my solutions to community issues.

 

As an active youth leader at age 14 with the Big Brothers of Greater Vancouver, I met Thomas, an at-risk youth who had difficulty making friends in elementary school. As an Executive of Student Council at age 16, I met Hallie, a grade 7 student who was terrified of high school. As a global citizen at age 19, I met Elizabeth, a high school student who asked me to tell her how scary university really is. What do Thomas, Hallie, Elizabeth, and I have in common? We are all children of immigrants. Children of immigrants have pressure to become successful to make their parents sacrifices, like leaving their home country, worthwhile. My family settled in Surrey, which is home to 71,838 students. 27 of the schools that students attend are designated inner city where low average incomes, high ESL, single parent family rates, and low standardized test scores challenge staff daily to address both the basic needs of students and their educational departments. Students within inner-city schools experience a lack of support in the transition from high school to post-secondary school. I went to one of those schools. My transformational experiences shaped my goals and my drive for academic excellence, attitudes towards teaching and learning, and approach to leadership. This is why I became a Researcher in Public Health, as education and health are directly connected. 

Through this I witnessed that change on an individual level is momentous, but sometimes lacking. For example, I know several inner-city students (ICS), first generation university students (FGUS), and students with mental illness (SWMI), that feel that their background/experiences are barriers to their success. ICS and FGUS may feel that their skills are inadequate due to their educational upbringing. For SWMI, the stigma of mental illness brings an attitude of not being good enough. These experiences are reasons why I am pursuing a Master of Science in Experimental Medicine in order to help students at a foundational level through education and health. Not only do I and other students, need to learn and grow into stronger leaders and advocates, but we must become a society of change makers to engage in action around issues of parity and who are working towards shifts in policy, especially in educational governance and health care. I have started integrating myself in such communities through the Surrey Youth Council, UBC’s Science Undergraduate Society, and BC’s Patient Safety and Quality Council. 
 

As a first generation to apply for university, I had minimal guidance. Acting as a change maker, I connected with my high school principal in my second year at UBC. She connected me with the Surrey School District. Together, I worked with educators and community members to create Empower The Future (ETF), a non-profit organization that aims to promote personal, professional, and academic growth through mentorship. Our main project is the Life After High School Project. We want inner-city students to get help from someone who has been there and done that. Students are mentored on five main topics through a workshop in their school such as dealing with financial stress; finding credible information about post-secondary education; preparing to enter the workforce; searching for volunteer opportunities; and caring for yourself. Through this initiative, ETF has been able to help over 700 students overcome their post- secondary challenges in six different schools in the Lower Mainland. I continue to visit these schools each year to ensure inner-city students have the same opportunities as others, to learn more about the difficulties youth encounter, and work in partnership with them to build solutions. My goal is for all students to build the necessary skills to feel comfortable in post- secondary school and for post-secondary schools to provide more support for incoming students.

 

In August 2015, I was 1 in 5 Canadians struck by generalized anxiety disorder. A particular day that haunts me is November 12, 2015. I was leaving my parent’s home for my Quantum Mechanics midterm. I told myself you’re just nervous and reluctantly pulled out of the driveway. My heart pounded harder each kilometer away from home. I felt extremely nauseous. Anxiety was keeping me company during this lonely ride to the University of British Columbia. I continued on to Highway 91 and drove over the Alex Fraser Bridge with my sweatpants soaked in tears. My symptoms deepened – Anxiety told me I was going to die. Once I crossed the Oak Street Bridge, I vomited while making a left turn. My trembling hands forced me to pull over. Oxygen escaped me. I was having a severe panic attack. I needed help. My friends and family supported me while health professionals provided life-saving medication. Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone.

 Institutions often recognize inclusion and diversity as values. However, one of Canada’s greatest challenges in education is offering sufficient accessibility to students who are disabled, especially those with invisible disabilities. Often faculties are open to accommodating students, but when a student has a unique accommodation request, they are often denied. Students with disabilities (SWD) are too often painted with the same brush. Additionally, SWD face social obstacles such as stigma, lack of understanding, and abled privilege. Accommodations must test ableist conventions and create specific accommodations for SWD. While many of these challenges are stemmed from societal issues, there are a few solutions that can help with this issue. Policy makers can be given evidence-based information about systematic changes and increase the participation of SWD in the community or institution. I began working on this by collecting evidence-based information from secondary students through my own research project in the Lower Mainland. Awareness is also key. Healthy and frequent communication between post-secondary instructors and students is a step towards defeating stigma among campuses. While instructors are focused on the academic well-being of students, their mental well-being is directly associated with it. I was lucky to have supportive friends and family, but a student may rely on an instructor to be the one to say it’s okay to feel this way. Change requires critical inspection of current procedures. By including SWD in our governance, policy making, regular conversations, we are choosing to challenge traditional standards and ableist expectations. Let’s take the challenge.

 As a mental health advocate, I aim to support marginalized individuals in a variety of ways including through my research work. Canada’s culturally diverse population (CDP) experience difficulties such as language barriers, difficulty navigating the healthcare system, and lack of culturally tailored resources, compared to the general population when accessing mental health services. Technology can improve quality and access to this underserved population through e-mental health which involves services and information delivered through the Internet and related technologies. However, this approach is currently limited and must be culturally tailored for optimal effectiveness. This study aims to investigate the use of e-mental health among CDP for anxiety and depressive disorders in the Metro Vancouver Regional District. Our objectives are: (1) To explore the experience of digital mental health services and assess its efficacy with CDP, (2) To identify connections between ethnicity, digital health literacy, and experiences of mental health difficulties, and (3) To make recommendations for the development of e-mental health services for culturally diverse populations. Participants will fill a survey involving questions around e-mental health use, the severity of their depression and anxiety symptoms, and socio-demographic characteristics. Participants will be invited to a focus group to share their experiences with e-mental health and provide recommendations for improvement. We aim to have over 200 filled-surveys and four to eight participants for three focus groups. This study will benefit CDP in Canada by improving access to effective treatments for anxiety and depressive disorders using technology, providing health care professionals with a greater understanding of treatment needs in ethnic minority groups, and supporting the development of culturally relevant e-mental health resources and services for CDP.

As a Toptal Scholar, I will build upon the inspiration that women in technology have given me by collaborating with innovative researchers and organizations and helping students receive mentorship to obtain quality opportunities in technology. With my current volunteer work with inner-city students, my experience in research with technology and health care, and my commitment to helping others, I imagine that I will be able to act as a voice of Toptal and its mentors to support women in Technology through my Women in STEM project which aims to build connections and encourage inner-city female students in STEM careers to limit gaps in their transition to higher education. Each discipline has specific information for admission to programs, challenges as a woman in non-traditional careers, community specific support, and inspiring women who practiced in the field. Furthermore, students and presenters involved in conversation regarding the importance of mentorship and finding a mentor who identifies as the same gender, culture, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. To build on the topic of mentorship, a final wrap up event is held as a career café where students connect with female undergraduate students and professionals in various fields. As a pilot project, the Women in STEM project holds promise in developing meaningful connections with female prospective students in STEM and providing motivation and support for pursuing higher education. Through the Toptal Scholarship Program, I will learn skills to share among colleagues while building a network that can further improve my outreach work with marginalized individuals and bring my vision and plans to action.

© 2019 by Empower The Future Association.