Experiencing summer at Shad Western 2019

Last month marked the end of a month-long program that changed the lives of a thousand high-achieving and talented students across Canada: The Shad Program. This article will be a recap of my summer experience with Shad at Western University and some of my reflections on this life-changing experience.

Before I begin, I want to briefly explain what Shad is all about for those of you who have never heard about it. The Wikipedia definition says that Shad is “an annual Canadian summer enrichment program for high-achieving high school students in July”. But Shad is so much more than that. Shad’s core mission is to empower the youth to make the world a better place. Every summer, roughly a thousand grade 10, 11 and 12 students from across Canada get accepted into the program and come out of it, a completely transformed individual.

You might be asking yourself, how is that even possible? How do you empower students to change the world and make it a better place within the span of just 4 short weeks? Those were the same questions I asked myself when I first heard about Shad. I didn’t really know what to expect, but hearing from many that it was a life-changing experience, I took the chance and applied. Thankfully, I got accepted and was assigned to the Western University campus with 66 other Shads.

It was the best thing that could ever happen to me; it was the best month of my life, and for my life. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of how Shad managed to become so transformative for so many individuals.

The first week

During the first week of Shad Western, most of our time was focused on getting to know each other and creating meaningful bonds between each individual through team-building exercises. One of the program assistants explained that this was very important before diving in the academic sessions which could sometimes be long and tedious.

A highlight of that week was the 4-day camping trip to Pelee Island. We bonded over songs at the campfire during the night. Even though there were tons of mosquitoes that were annoying the crap out of me since I had a blood type of O+ (mosquitoes’ favorite blood type), I got to know a lot of talented individuals, many of which I shared common interests such as robotics and programming.

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During this trip at Pelee Island, we also got the chance to hear from a talented entrepreneur whose speech really stuck with me. He said that there are only 3 things in life that contribute to success: luck, hard work and intelligence. The only one that stands alone is luck. Most successful people find some sort of magic balance between the 3 elements, but every person has a different formula. This simple yet powerful explanation of achieving success still resonates with me today.

After Shad ended, I realize that this first week was actually one of the most memorable moments of Shad. My peers also shared this same view. When I asked them what their most memorable moment of shad was, they said Pelee Island.

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This may be because in the moment, when we were camping and in the midst of boiling heat, all we could think about was to kill the annoying mosquitoes that were constantly trying to bite us, and how eager we were to go back to get air conditioning. Our body was in survival mode, as we were literally trying to survive in the middle of nowhere.

However, when we look back, we remember the beginning of a sense of belonging and community; a belonging to a community, a family, was starting to take shape.

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The beautiful view of the lake at sunset with friends, the car karaokes in trolleys, the bonding at night around the campfire, the beautiful city of stars in total darkness, the fancy dinner at the Stone House, and so much more, were some of the beautiful memories I have of my adventure at Pelee Island. More importantly, all these memories were all shaped around people. Only the 67 of us share these same memories with each other. Nobody else.

Shad thus makes the youth changemakers firstly by showing them and letting them embody the value of community. Why is that value important? Because humans beings are dependent on one another. What I found at Shad was a second family. I have never met so many caring, supportive and inclusive people from across Canada coming together. In the days at Pelee Island where I was feeling exhausted from camping, my Shad family was always there to look after me. In the days when I was feeling sad, missing my parents, my Shad family was there to support me emotionally. Through team activities, Shad showed me the value of coming together as a community, whether it is working together towards achieving a greater common goal when playing sports such as soccer, or simply the feeling of being appreciated and belonging to an inclusive and supportive family.

Shad Design Challenge

Starting from week 2, it started to get more academically intensive. A central part of the Shad program is the Shad Design Challenge, a team-based hands-on challenge to develop a plan and prototype that solves a real-world issue. This year, our challenge was to find innovative solutions in order to help Canadians impactfully reduce our waste. Hence, the academic sessions were offered from different professors and organizations such as the NWMO (Nuclear Waste Management Organization).

These academic sessions were usually lectures, but can sometimes be interactive ones where we get the opportunity to visit wind tunnels, hospitals, explore medical mechatronics or even build robots, which helped reinforce our understanding of the issue by taking a holistic view of the different types of waste (ex: food waste, nuclear waste, e-waste, etc.). We even got to open up trash bags in order to see what and how much people throw away regularly.

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Obviously, there were days that were less academically intensive, and more about getting to know and connecting with other Shads through fun, relaxing activities. For example, we had the opportunity to the mall, to the beach, perform in various talent shows, etc.

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Memofood

To fight the problem of food waste, our team came up with Memofood, an application which works with supermarkets to allow users to access digitally the information about the food they have purchased at the store. We are still currently working on the application at the time that this article is being drafted, so if you are interested in hearing more about the idea, you can follow us at https://www.linkedin.com/company/memofood/.

The End

The end of the camp was concluded with a showcase where judges were invited to evaluate projects based on 3 criteria: desirability, feasibility, and viability.

Our group got awarded Best Shad project at the Western Final Showcase. It was for sure a moment of elation, but looking back compared to the other Shad experiences, that was nowhere near the most memorable parts of my Shad experience. What I gained the most out of Shad wasn’t a simple certificate and award, it was the experiences and friendships that taught me lifelong lessons, changed my perception of the world and made me grow as a human being.

Winning wasn’t what made it memorable. The process was what made it memorable.

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More personal lessons: reflecting on my  experiences

Throughout Shad, and especially during the Shad project, I was constantly asking people about feedback on my performance within the team.

All these habits of reflecting on myself and wanting to grow came from these sessions called reflection, where we came together as a group to think back on the day and discuss different issues. For example, we would think about how our day went and reflect on the highs and the lows during that time. Another reflection session was about how words could hurt, how sometimes we might say offensive things without really meaning it, how intent doesn’t matter, how the impact is ultimately what really affects others. As someone who never had pondered on oneself previously, the practice of reflecting has become a life-changing experience that has made me learn a lot about myself.

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From reflection and feedback from Shads, I learned to not let my negative emotions such as anger and frustration affect others, which could lead to reduced efficiency within the team. I learned to try and control my negative emotions and to improve my listening skills. I learned to speak and listen at the right time. I learned to listen to understand, not listen to reply.

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I learned to become vulnerable around people. Back home, I always show this one side of me. I was raised in a culture where you cannot cry as a male else it shows a sign of weakness. But I learned that it is okay to be vulnerable, to be honest about being your flaws.

I learned to be humble. Being constantly surrounded by some of the brightest youths in the country really taught me to put away my pride and ego for the greater good.

These kind of life lessons learned are obviously different from one person to another, but it was thanks to the experience that Shad has offered me that helped me grow as a person. Note that these personal lessons cannot be taught by words. You have to experience it in order to learn from it, and that is only possible through a program like Shad.

I learned to understand and encompass the values of inclusivity, community, and support. Throughout the Shad experience, I had many great moments, but I also had many moments where I was feeling down. However, I was always looked after by my Shad community, I felt so honoured to be cared for by what I would call strangers just weeks ago. In my hometown, that would never happen.

At Shad, I learned that “no” is not an answer. Any idea that was proposed was worthy to be heard and discussed before being thrown away. People here are not only incredibly talented and smart, but they’re also incredible human beings.

Gratitude bags

Shad also brought back confidence in myself. After Shad ended, we could open up these bags where others had placed notes in order to express their gratitude. And I so felt overwhelmed when I saw so many people recognize me and thank me through these notes, being grateful for the friendship and perhaps lessons that I taught them. This is in contrast to the fact that this year was personally a lot of failures. I lost a lot of hope and confidence in myself, but Shad has brought back this belief in myself. A simple action by people you care about can make all the difference in your life. In my case, it gave me back the drive to believe in myself to achieve greater things, things that people often told me I could never achieve, that I was never going to succeed.

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The Shad summer camp may have ended, but it is merely a new beginning. I will definitely stay in touch with other Shads, as I know that these people are the ones that are always going to be there for me, even when I will be at the lowest point of my life. This is why ending the summer camp was one of the hardest things of my life. I have never cried so hard, so much for a summer camp. The thought that this opportunity to see a community of 67 supportive people come together was probably never going arise again, made me very sad.

If you truly experienced Shad, you will understand that the “enrichment” part of the program was far less important, that it was much more about the friendships that you form between the people around you that made Shad so life-changing. Learn from each other. Enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn. Ultimately, remember that a human being is not one without being around other humans.

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Trust the process, and don’t be afraid to get out there.

Thank you for reading,

Steven Gong

Shad Fellow UWO’19