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WHSC post-secondary scholarship winners share COVID experiences

While the COVID crisis has caused trauma and loss, it has also inspired many to get active in their workplaces and communities to help safeguard worker and public health.

Among them are many of the applicants for the 20th edition of the Workers Health Safety Centre (WHSC) Student Scholarship Contest. An important objective of this annual scholarship initiative, interrupted for two years because of the ongoing COVID crisis, is for students, many of whom work, to take a closer look at occupational health and safety.

A key part of the application process is to submit an essay. This year we asked applicants to also address public health and specifically consider how, “A crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted workers, their families, and communities. Explain how it has affected you and yours, the lessons you learned and how you will draw on these lessons to contribute to safer, healthier work and communities in future.”

“The unique insight and lived experiences of these students facing the COVID virus at school, work, home, and in the community was as enlightening as it was inspiring,” says Andrew Mudge, WHSC executive director. “It gives me great optimism for the future as we continue to tackle the virus and its variants in addition to other occupational and public safety and health issues.”  

Seven scholarships awarded

In addition to the essay requirement, scholarship candidates were invited to share their contributions to the quality of life in their school and community, both in their own words and in a letter of recommendation from a teacher, other educator, or representative of a community organization. The combination of the two application elements (scores weighted ¾ for the essay and ¼ for co-curricular activities) determined five scholarships of $1,000 each, plus two top awards of $2,000 each. WHSC established one of the top awards in honour of Clifford Pilkey, WHSC’s founder and former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour and a second in honour of long-time WHSC board member, former president of the Ontario Public Services Employees Union and social justice leader, Fred Upshaw.

Essays highlight empowerment

Ewen Van Wagner, a graduate of Belle River District High School and recipient of the Clifford Pilkey scholarship, found himself on the front lines of the pandemic working at a retirement home. Understaffed, like so many care facilities, Van Wagner was assigned to administer COVID rapid tests to visitors without training or protection. His essay exhibits his grasp of challenges faced by those new to a job including pressure to perform unsafe work. He suggests however, “The next time I am asked to do something at a workplace or during my post-secondary education that I am uncomfortable with, I will not hesitate to speak up and voice my concern to a manager. Hopefully in doing so, my peers and coworkers alike will all feel empowered to do the same, since no one, especially not a minor, should feel pressured or forced into unsafe situations in the workplace.”
 
Tecumseh resident and graduate of St. Anne Catholic High School, Alex Hewitt also worked in a sector deemed essential during the COVID crisis.  In his essay he explained, “COVID-19 gave me a new perspective on my rights and what unsafe work might look like, but in the end, unsafe conditions should never be tolerated.” Alex did cite some of the precautions put in place by his employer and the critical and legal role employers must play, further explaining, “Ultimately, employers have the greatest responsibility for ensuring work is safe and healthy.” Hewitt was recognized with the Fred Upshaw scholarship.
 
Scholarship recipient and graduate of T.R. Leger Alternative School in Kemptville, Amanda D’Aoust, employed in a hospital emergency department during the pandemic described how she and her colleagues worked beyond their capacity to help meet the needs of an overwhelmed and under-prepared system. She also explained the toll it took on their mental and physical health and, like so many others, called for action to provide better mental health support for these front-line workers and to fix a health care system in crisis.
 
Aidan Lao, a graduate of Sinclair Secondary School in Whitby, offered a unique perspective in terms of his efforts to provide a safe learning environment in his piano studio. He explained, “As restrictions permitted, I made some crucial changes to my policy and studio practices to ensure a safe workplace.” This included a strict mask mandate, social distancing, hand sanitation, as well as offering virtual lessons to eliminate risk of transmission altogether.
 
Finlay Johnson, a graduate of Kitchener’s Resurrection Catholic Secondary School and scholarship winner, believes quality COVID-19 safety training was critical to prepare her for safe work during the pandemic. She also recognizes this training, which prepared her to effectively use screening and other precautions, helped to safeguard public health. Like other scholarship applicants, Johnson kept busy with extra-curricular efforts at school and in her community, including helping at a local church providing community access to free warm meals daily.   

Volunteerism offers critical community support

Scholarship winner Sofia Begg, a graduate of Northern Secondary School in Toronto, acted on her strongly held belief  in community duty during the pandemic. Sofia volunteered to deliver essential items including food to seniors and others at-risk, helping to keep them out of harm’s way from the virus. Her advocacy prior to the pandemic is equally inspiring, including provision of care to the children of young mothers, thus allowing them to work, pursue education or simply tend to other daily necessities. 
 
Another scholarship recipient, Aditi Atodaria, a graduate of Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate Institute in Toronto, exhibited a similar commitment to community during the COVID crisis, explaining how she and others arranged to drop groceries to neighbours who got sick to “prevent them from being forced to go to public spaces and infecting others.” Equally inspiring was her recognition that wider access to paid sick leave is a critical tool to stem workplace and community transmission of this virus and others in the future.  
 
“The insight offered by all applicants gives me confidence our communities and workplaces will be safer and healthier for future generations,” says Mudge. “I wish them all the best in their studies and future endeavours.”  
   
Please note: No portion of WHSC revenues or government grants support this scholarship contest. WHSC contributions to this important occupational health and safety awareness and post-secondary education initiative are financed solely through funds raised at the Clifford Pilkey Memorial Golf Fundraiser.

The scholarship contest is open to Ontario high school students entering full-time or part-time studies at a publicly funded Ontario post-secondary institution. Please keep an eye out for details of the 2023 scholarship contest to be posted online and promoted through various WHSC media channels in early 2023.
 
Meet the 2022 WHSC Student Scholarship winners.
 
As Ontario’s official government-designated training centre, WHSC delivers hazard-based, prevention-focused training to workplaces in all sectors of the economy. Further, WHSC offers an extensive collection of information resources including a number aimed at students and other new and young workers.