I checked my email every day for weeks, waiting for word. While my friends were hanging out and watching Netflix, I had sacrificed part of my winter break crafting four perfect essays to be accepted to SHAD, a once in a lifetime program where exceptional students from all over Canada get to experience living like an actual University student.
I knew my chances of being accepted were like winning the lottery. Although I’m a good student, I’m not a uber-genius like most of the SHAD applicants. Still, being accepted to SHAD meant a lot. It meant a chance at finding some direction. Many of my friends in grade 11 have already chosen their University majors and I haven’t even narrowed the field down to a top 5 list.
I received the acceptance email in the middle of a SAT prep class. As soon as I read the word “congratulations”, I screamed “Yes!” out loud, startling everyone including the teacher. Another “Yes” when I learned I would be at the Queen’s University SHAD program, my dream University (when I finally decide what I want to be).
Fast forward to July 2nd, 2017...
On the first day of SHAD, I nervously entered the glass-encased lobby of the modern engineering building at Queen’s, unable to ignore feeling a little bit like an imposter. It didn’t help that my plane from Vancouver had been delayed and I had already missed most of the ‘Meet and Greet’ where my group had surely bonded without me. When the program director first pointed towards my group, my impression of them was ‘seven nerdy teenagers’. I was reluctant to interrupt their game of ninja, so I quietly waited for them to finish. When they noticed me, they jumped up and I was immediately mobbed with friendly handshakes. My worries were instantly assuaged.
Watts Hall, the residence where all SHADs settled in, is a bright, sleek, high-rise building. Before coming to SHAD, I wasn’t too keen on sharing a room with someone. Luckily, everyone was given their own rooms with a shared bathroom. Nathan, the student next door and I set up a rule to knock 3 seconds before entering the washroom, so the shared bathroom was no hassle at all. The room itself was surprisingly modern and spacious. It was like walking into a luxurious hotel room. The furniture looked brand-spanking new: a comfortable double bed, spacious shelves, and recently-painted white walls. After unpacking, it was as if I was already a college student ready to start his freshman year.
The first week was pretty relaxed since it was mostly spent on getting to know each other and familiarizing ourselves with the campus. Then it was time to dive into lectures, projects, and field trips. Our SHAD program director, Kelly, really outdid herself in choosing the most passionate speakers who gave us SHADs some truly enlightening STEAM lectures from presenters who were working on cutting-edge projects. One presenter showed us how to locate distant stars with a telescope. Another speaker shared her enthusiasm for a rare yellow pigment called Indian Yellow. The most fascinating lecture for me was about how our skin regenerates after a cut. After the lecture, it inspired me to learn more about human anatomy.
In the second week, we started our SHAD group projects. The theme for the SHAD projects this year was, “How can Canadians effectively reduce our energy footprint?” Like most teens, I’m freaked out about roasting hot summers, glacial melting, and the rise of sea levels, so this theme was an important one to me. The goal of the project was to design and create a prototype of a commercial product that could put a dent in our carbon footprint. It was a fantastic opportunity to do a real-world research project. On top of that, our SHTAFF (SHAD Staff) who are business leaders would listen to our idea. My group of 7 designed a way to use discarded cooking oil as biodiesel. Part of the project was to write a 10-page business plan, so we contacted Costco and gained permission to dispose of their used cooking oil for our company. My group also crafted an impressive powerpoint presentation. It was a thrill to see that our idea sparked some business leaders’ interest.
As a reward for working so hard on our projects, we packed our bags for an overnight camping trip to Wolfe Island, the largest of the famous Thousand Islands in the Saint Lawrence River. What was supposed to be a highlight of the program turned out to be not so fun for me and another camper. We both came down with a 24-hour flu and were promptly driven back to the dorm. However, as I found out the next day, I really dodged a bullet. Turns out that my fellow SHADs had suffered all night due to a wicked thunderstorm and a drenched tent.
The third and fourth week were all about our big presentations. On the day of the presentation, the atmosphere was similar to that of a science fair and our group was eager to share our polished biodiesel display. Our display was looking pretty sharp and though we wanted to be in the running for a ticket to the SHAD cup, where the top winners from all across Canada would compete, we were happy enough to settle for our 6th place finish.
The day before the end of the program, all of us SHADs sat in a circle on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. In the middle of the circle, empty glass containers were arranged into one giant star and we were all given a candle. One by one we walked to the center of the star and talked about what SHAD had meant to us. The same phrases were repeated over and over again: “Thank you for making this the best month of my life” and “SHAD has been life-changing”. We lit our candles and placed them in the glass containers of the star. It was difficult to say goodbye, but I’m glad we all had a chance to share our thoughts about SHAD and our appreciation.
It was also difficult to say goodbye to our program director and the faculty members. They were always incredibly focused on planning enriching and enjoyable experiences. Then, there were the program assistants, university students, who patiently answered our unending questions about University life. They were always there to support us during project time and they made sure no one was ever excluded. When I had the flu, a PA actually ran to the nearest convenience store to grab me some medicine. We were so lucky to have such great mentors.
I heartily recommend the SHAD program to anyone who wants an incredible summer university experience. At SHAD, I made many lifelong friends that I’m sure I will keep in touch with on a regular basis. I’m so glad that I took the time to craft the essays that got me into the program. It was truly an unforgettable experience.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.