UNIVERSITY is not just about academics and graduating with a high grade-point average. The three to four years spent in university is also a time to explore interests, meet people from diverse backgrounds and give back to different communities.
Sophie Hassanali knows this well. At 24, the media and communications studies graduate of Brock University, St Catharines, Canada, has travelled to Peru to teach English, went to Hong Kong to study abroad and is even starting up an e-commerce business for underprivileged women in India. Her altruistic and adventurous spirit earned her the Spirit of Brock award when she graduated last year.
The award is given to two students – undergraduate and postgraduate – to recognise their involvement in extracurricular activities, academic achievement, and community involvement in social-justice initiatives.
"The award is about showing courage, innovation and having that sense of curiosity and wander to really capitalise on everything the university offers. When I applied, it was really a shock. Many people I know did a lot more than I did. They founded clubs or did other things.
"But I came over here from Trinidad and I did the best I could," Hassanali told Newsday in an interview on January 6.
Hassanali is from San Fernando. She attended Naparima Girls' High School, then did her last year of secondary school at Maple Leaf International School.
She was in lower sixth in Naps when she realised she wanted to study abroad. Instead of competing for a national scholarship by sitting CAPE, she went to Maple Leaf to get the Ontario Secondary School Diploma.
Her weekdays were full, especially as she had to commute from San Fernando and Port of Spain, either driving or taking the water taxi. Her weekends were equally full, as she was involved in many extracurricular activities in school. She was on the yearbook committee, had an internship at the Courtyard by Marriott, Port of Spain, and raised funds for flood victims and animal welfare. All of that work earned her the St Catharines and Port of Spain Twinning Scholarship scholarship to Brock.
"Getting my scholarship was a culmination of my experiences at Naparima, at Maple Leaf and my involvement at home with community (service). I think all those things added to the scholarship, because it wasn't an academic-based scholarship."
Hassanali capitalised on all the opportunities Brock had to offer. The summer after her first year, she backpacked through Europe. In her second year she taught English in Peru. She did a study exchange programme in Hong Kong in her third year. She was the arts and culture editor of the university newspaper. In her fourth year she worked as the campus marketing and recruitment co-ordinator, and she interned at a local TV station called Cogeco Yourtv Niagara.
She worked in the student life department, which deals with fundraising activities. Part of her portfolio was to recruit volunteers and organise fundraisers.
Through the university, she worked on the Shoe Box Project, which packed shoeboxes of make-up, hair products and other beauty products that are usually overlooked items for donations to underprivileged women.
"In my four years, I was trying to make the best of being abroad. Anything I could have done to fill up my schedule, apart from my academics, which was like the core of my purpose being away."
Being away from home was hard on Hassanali who had to adapt to a different culture and climate, particularly during the winter. However, she made it a priority to be home every Christmas to see her family. Even when she was in Hong Kong, she missed Christmas in TT so much, she spontaneously booked a plane ticket to Trinidad.
"It was Christmas Eve and I cried. I could not believe I was home alone in the snow, all by myself in my little apartment – and I actually flew out that night and I went to Trinidad for five days. There's nothing like being home for Christmas."
Now that she's graduated, Hassanali has a three-year postgraduate work permit from Canada and is job hunting. In the meantime, she is working on an e-commerce site that funds sustainable feminine hygiene products for women and girls in India.
"I can't imagine menstruating and not having any supplies. When I was there I realised it was a real issue. I wanted to help."
She plans to sell reusable menstruation cups with a buy-one-give-one business model in which every cup purchased will give a cup to a woman or girl in India.
Hassanali credits her upbringing for giving her a charitable spirit. Every year for her birthday her mother would take her to an orphanage and she would distribute meals and play with the children.
"Since I was younger, it was something instilled in me that yes, you're fortunate, yes you are blessed – but there are people who will always not share that same level of privilege as you, and it's important to recognise that and do what you can, when you can."