The Loran Award is one of the biggest and most prestigious awards in Canada. This year, thousands applied but only a small number of outstanding Canadian students were selected as a 2021 Loran Scholar. Each one receives up to $100,000 to explore and develop their talents as they pursue their undergraduate studies.
We talked to Stephanie Urena Rodriguez, a 2021 Loran Scholar from The Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, ON about the unreal feeling of winning, volunteering at a social circus program, and not comparing yourself to other applicants.
1. Tell us about yourself.
Well… I am 17 years old, obsessed with Gray’s Anatomy, a foodie, a leader, a follower and I have always enjoyed giving back to communities. I mostly serve youth which is my favourite kind of work. Most of the time I give back by simply volunteering my time and my ideas. As of now, I have done quite a bit of work in my school surrounding Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging whether that be co-Leading the Black Student Union, or revitalizing the integration of financial aid students.
Outside of school and for the past 5 years, I have been volunteering my time at a local after-school program in my neighbourhood called Square Circle.
2. What was your reaction when you found out that you were named a 2021 Loran Scholar?
It was unreal, I wouldn’t classify myself as a selfish person but in that moment I felt like the only person in the world, truly unstoppable. Physically, my heart was pounding out of my chest and my eyes were heavy with tears. However, it was the first time where I felt as though all of the sacrifices that I and my family members had made were 100% worth it. It is such an empowering scholarship and experience that simply being a semi-finalist was rewarding in itself. It took me a while to accept that I was indeed named a 2021 Loran Scholar. In fact, I am still in shock to this day.
3. What is the most meaningful leadership experience you’ve had so far?
It is so difficult to choose! However, an experience that was very meaningful was adapting to COVID-19 restrictions by transforming an in-person March Break camp to work virtually.
During March Break, I normally go back to my neighbourhood and volunteer at Square Circle which is a social circus program. This program is regularly in person and involves a lot of movement and touch, filled with participants and instructors from across Toronto. Therefore, it came as no surprise in 2020 to find out that the program would not be running during the COVID-19 pandemic.
From an outsider’s perspective, Square Circle resembles a humble circus arts program, however, once you introduce the social aspect to the circus it is so much more. Participants who range from 7-12 years of age develop a bounty of personal skills and friendships at the program and due to the small groups. combined with the tight-knit community, participants often turn to the program as a way to relieve stress and engage with their peers in a safe and loving environment.
I knew it was vital that we, instructors and volunteers, worked together to find a way to keep our participants motivated and mentally occupied during stressful times. We decided to run the program virtually. It was difficult at first trying to teach circus arts and engage with the participants through a screen. However, after much trial and error, we were successful.
Mentally, the pandemic is extremely draining and has managed to keep me on edge since the first case was identified in Ontario. Despite that, knowing that I alongside other community members were able to provide a safe atmosphere for participants whether it be through a screen or not, serves as motivation for myself in other volunteer positions, as I now know that there can be success in a more virtual-dependent world.
4. What motivates you to give back to your community?
Quite simply, I was taught from a very young age that you should treat others the way you like to be treated. This mindset that I believe stemmed from kindergarten has evolved into the activism that I do nowadays. Throughout my childhood, I noticed more and more the inequalities that were present within the marginalized community I was growing up in. It was frustrating, but once I discovered that I could give back and create positive change, there was no going back from there.
One of the largest motivating factors is seeing the impact you can have on individuals: whether it be watching a Square Circle participant learn a new skill and develop courage, or watching a young Black girl find her voice and host anti-racism workshops at the predominantly white institution she attends.
Humans are walking murals of the people that have impacted them the most. I am a reflection of the individuals who helped me find my voice, and being able to watch myself grow and become that inspiration for a peer or mentee is the most heartwarming and motivating experience.
5. What part of the Loran program are you most looking forward to?
I will be the first person in my family to attend university so I am most looking forward to the mentorship aspect of the Loran Award. Having someone that I can turn to throughout this experience is going to be extremely beneficial not only for myself but for the communities I currently help with or will help with in the future. This is because I personally stick to what I know is going to work and this is oftentimes not the most creative approach and it can prevent me from envisioning new ways of creating change. So I hope the advice that I will be receiving will help me to think outside the box and also challenge myself!
6. What are you most looking forward to about university? What do you hope to get involved in there?
Other than the 4 years of coursework!! In University, I am so excited to join the Black Student Union and outside of school, I am hoping to do more volunteer work helping youth with their mental health, specifically youth of colour as well as create initiatives to teach marginalized youth financial literacy.
7. What advice do you have for other students applying to become a Loran Scholar or to any other scholarship?
When applying for scholarships avoid comparing yourself to other applicants. Keep in mind, this is much easier said than done. Throughout your entire life you will encounter people who are simply better than you. For instance, during the Loran interview process I met countless applicants who had done so much more than I had and got incredible grades, too. If you start comparing yourself you will bring upon your own downfall. Value your accomplishments, uplift yourself, and instead of pushing other applicants away, look at it as the perfect time to develop new friendships. At the end of the day, the interviewers look at your character and leadership abilities, as long as you showcase passion and love for what you do you never know what the result may be!
8. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years, I hope that the initiatives and organizations that I create in my early 20s have a national impact. I see myself having a strong team to lean on, which I believe is not too far from reality now with the incredible Loran team and alumni. In addition, I have spent 17 years of my life in Toronto (which I am not complaining about) but I would love the chance to travel and even volunteer in different countries and to find new ways to support youth across the globe.
The Loran Scholars Foundation looks for students who demonstrate integrity, courage, compassion, grit, and personal autonomy. To learn more about the Loran Award and the scholarship application process, visit https://loranscholar.ca/becoming-a-scholar/.