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James Xu, at left, and Kevin Han (both Year 1 EngSci) have been named 2016 recipients of the Schulich Leader Scholarships. (Courtesy: DUA)

Established in 2012 by businessman Seymour Schulich, the Schulich Leader Scholarships were created to foster the next generation of global pioneers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Two of the four Schulich Leader Scholarships awarded at U of T each year are earmarked for engineering students, and this year U of T Engineering welcomes Kevin Han and James Xu (both Year 1 EngSci) as the 2016 recipients. As they launch their undergraduate careers, these emerging leaders share their first impressions of U of T, making friends and taking things apart.

What attracted you to U of T?

James: I chose the University of Toronto because of its international reputation, the variety of specialties and the quality of professors. I was also interested in the Engineering Science program, which allows students to experience a number of fields before choosing what they want to specialize in.

Tell us a bit about your volunteer work.

Kevin Han (right) teaches in the Chill Zone (Courtesy: Kevin Han).
Kevin Han (right) teaches in the Chill Zone (Courtesy: Kevin Han)

Kevin: I started volunteering in grade 10 with Chill Zone, which worked with underprivileged elementary children who needed help in school, or a place to go and do something fun — arts and crafts, games and sports. When I started Grade 10 I was at a new high school, and I felt really lucky to be in a community that was new, because it gave me so many opportunities to create traditions and lead the way. I saw The Inside Ride, which raises money for a pediatric cancer foundation, online and presented it to our student council. Students, teachers or community groups would form teams of six and come up with crazy costumes around a theme, and then they’d ride a stationary bike in turns to raise money. We’d have prizes for celebrating spirit or longest distance. Our first year, we had no expectations, so we set our goal at $3,000 and then raised $10,000. It built from there and we eventually raised $50,000 over three annual events.

James Xu, at centre, trains using a Sit Ski for his volunteer role as a ski instructor for people with disabilities. (Courtesy: James Xu).
James Xu, at centre, trains using a Sit Ski for his volunteer role as a ski instructor for people with disabilities. (Courtesy: James Xu)

James: I came to Canada from China in the eighth grade. It was hard to catch up, particularly while learning English. When my family moved to Aurora before high school, I started to teach skiing to people with disabilities as a way to meet people in a new community. I wanted to do something to get beyond the language barrier and I wanted to help people. My students have really inspired me to pursue my goals. I helped them and they helped me to try harder and I started to do really well in school. My current student has weak leg muscles and non-verbal autism. She can communicate through yes or no questions — it’s very important to communicate clearly in skiing. You have to know where you’re going, the turns have to be perfectly synchronized. I used to be very shy, but learning to communicate with different people has helped me get better at breaking the ice.

Why have you decided to pursue a degree in engineering?

James: Both of my parents are electrical engineers. Since I was little they have been sharing their knowledge with me. They always encouraged me to question things and work. In elementary school I had a toy where you’d press a button and it would make a sound. I remember once it stopped working and I took it apart — I think it was just a loose connection, and when I touched it the connection came back. And ever since then I’ve been interested in building things. I bought a screwdriver set and started to break everything I had. My parents encouraged me to understand the workings of very simple things.

When we moved to Aurora I had a garage to myself and power tools to try to build things.  I made a boomerang, which took a lot of experimentation. I also made an electric skateboard — it took me three years. I made it with parts from remote control cars, boats, you name it. These projects confirmed my interest in engineering where I can invent, design and create.

Kevin: I’ve always had a strong interest in STEM-related subjects. I found new STEM discoveries or inventions in the news fascinating and I wanted to replicate those success stories in my own way. After my undergrad, I want to continuing pursuing higher education with either a master’s or an MBA program to complement my career as an aspiring innovator. In terms of my engineering major, I am currently open-minded with a wide range of interest in biomedical, computer, robotics, and aerospace engineering. One thing is for sure: in whatever I do in the future, I will always seek to find new solutions to issues in the world.

How are you enjoying U of T so far?

Kevin: The upper years talk about the bond between engineering students, and it already feels true. It’s very easy to make friends. It’s also been very interesting to come to U of T and the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering from a high school that was so new, because U of T has so much tradition. You walk onto campus and see an iconic building like University College, and then you turn around and see the CN Tower — it’s such a different community and I’m looking forward to being a part of.

Learn more about the Schulich Leadership Scholarships

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