If I could describe Shaira in one word, it would be beautiful. She makes time not only for her friends and family, who are her source of support and happiness, but for children with autism, pregnant mothers, and medical research. All at the age of 20.
I’ll tell you how I met Shaira, because it’s a pretty funny story. We went to the same high school – she being a grade or two ahead of me – and participated in the same clubs. We ran in the same circles, only we never once bumped into each other. That is, until Shaira reached out to me after reading this. She told me about her story, and I was compelled to sit her down for a TXC-style interview.
What I love about this girl is how she’s overcome rough times and come out of it a more beautiful person. Here are some photos from our sit-down:
Dana Iskoldski: Tell us a bit about yourself, Shaira.
Shaira Wignarajah: I’m a second year Kin student at York University, and if it’s relevant, I’m 20 years old. I like to sing, too. My favourite artist is Nicki Minaj – a lot of people make fun of me for it – but it’s because she’s never afraid to show and say what she thinks. Her music is something that helped me get through some tough times. That, and my friends. They’re my support system no matter what I’m trying to do.
DI: What are you up to these days?
SW: I’m working and volunteering with Baycrest as a summer volunteer program coordinator – I’ve been there for five years already. Also, I’m volunteering at a gynaecology clinic; I interview patients, check fetal heartbeats [Ed. Note: probably the coolest thing ever!], things like that. I do aspire to go to Med School one day, so I’m trying to see if gynaecology is something I’m interested in. And then I’m also with the South Asian Autism Awareness Centre (SAAAC). I’ve been with them for four years, and we’re working with children who have autism. We’re trying to discover their talents. SAAAC does an amazing job at defeating the stigma associated with autism. We’re enabling the talents that these kids have – drawing, cooking, singing – and it always leaves me with the sensation of woah.
DI: There are tons of studies that say people with autism, and other forms of mental “disabilities”, are actually better at certain jobs than their “regular” counterparts. Like their brains are wired in a different, but perfect-for-the-task, way. Have you heard about that?
SW: Yeah! Each kid is not only unique, but so good at something. Uncovering that something is amazing.
DI: Why do you think people with disabilities, such as autism, are marginalized?
SW: They’re not like you and me. A lot of their thought processes are different, and it’s hard for them to carry out a conversation. For example, they’ll talk to you up until their brain says I don’t want to speak anymore and then they won’t be able to chat past that. So social cues, or social laws, don’t matter form them; they’re just going to do what they want to do [Ed. Note: if we’re being 100% honest, that bit sounds like an enviable state of mind]. At the end of the day, we all judge – and hey, I’m guilty of it, too – but after spending time at Baycrest (for all of us who aren’t familiar, it’s a medical research centre/elderly care home whose main focus is the science of aging and the issues associated with that) and SAAAC, I’ve learned so much. This stigma is something that has to change because it’s the same everywhere: once we see people don’t align with our beliefs we write them off. Nobody is willing to give he time to see why they see somebody as being different, and it’s not good.
DI: What are you most proud of at the moment?
SW: I was given an opportunity with Baycrest when one of its doctors was looking for a research assistant. At first I thought I can do this, no problem, but when I came there my mind was blown. I’m working on articles about the law and ethics of treating smokers and I don’t even have my Bachelor of Science yet! At first I was scared – horrified – but I have learned so much. You’d think you need a degree to be published in a world renowned medical journal, but you really don’t. It’s so empowering because this article, and the others I’ve worked on, are so much hard work. But they allow me to go beyond what I ever thought I was capable of doing.
DI: You were invited to Australia for a medical conference through Baycrest earlier this year, congrats on that. What was the biggest thing you took away from Australia?
SW: The topic was conquering cancer, and the biggest thing I learned is the power of communication. Everybody had come from a different place – India, Canada, everywhere – and the combination of all their ideas was so powerful.
DI: How did you make Australia happen? It’s obviously not a cheap trip.
SW: I seriously considered not going because money was a barrier, but my parents took out a little loan. I realized – and they understood – that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The trip was worth it. Money comes and money goes, but I know one day that four grand won’t mean much to me.
DI: You’re crazy-involved. What’s your secret to managing all your activities? Do you even sleep?
SW: I sleep, but I also live on coffee. A cup in the morning, and then a cup whenever I feel like it. It all boils down to the fact that I think I can do it. I don’t believe in I can’t or no time. We’ve got 24 hours in a day. And it’s easy to change your mind or get discouraged when you get rejected, but you really can do anything you set your mind to. No excuses.
DI: What’s your secret to staying positive?
SW: My mom has been inspiring me with her strength since I was young. She was a stranger to the country [Ed. Note: Shaira’s family is from Sri Lanka, they emigrated to escape war] and she didn’t feel like she belonged, but she did as much as she could for me and my brother. She didn’t know English, and she was unemployed, but she managed to take us to swimming classes, Tamil classes, everything. It was incredible. If she could do it, I think, I can do anything too.
DI: If you could, what advice would you give to your ten year old self?
SW: If there was one advice I could give myself, it would be to speak up sooner. As a young girl my family situation was not ideal, and I was put in situations where I had to stand up and speak for my family members – almost having to take on the role of an adult. I wish that if I had spoke earlier my family would have avoided a lot of the hardships we faced. But I’m glad that I had the courage to do it. In the end implementing change is based on courage, I believe.
DI: What do you want to accomplish in your lifetime?
SW: I think Med School, especially because everyone says it’s so hard. I want that to happen. Beyond that, I don’t see myself just working “regular hours”. I want to create some kind of change in my community. When I die, I don’t want to be known as “the doctor”. I want to be known as someone who made a difference.
DI: Last but not least, what is success to you?
SW: Success is having the courage to say yes to everything you’re passionate about. A lot of the times we want to do something, but we say we can’t. Being able to say I’m going to do this, that takes a lot of confidence. Once you start doing that, you’l start accomplishing things you never thought were possible.
There you have it, folks. Nine coffees down, ninety one left to go. I hope you learned something. And to Shaira, thanks for everything you do.