Overcoming adversity to become a leader

Growing from a difficult childhood and mental illness

Ampai decided to turn the negatives in her life into something positive.

I spent the 14-hour drive from my home in Bedford, Nova Scotia, to my first day at Queen’s shaking. My mind raced with dreams of someday becoming a ‘Queen of Queen’s’ and finding my footing in a new environment. But I also knew that I was anything but the typical Queen’s student.

My father is a first-generation refugee who arrived in Canada after fleeing the Vietnam War for 15 years. My mother grew up in a low-income area of Florida after her father was sent to prison before she could complete college.

Coming to Queen’s, a school known for being largely rich and white, was intimidating since I was nowhere near rich and am most certainly not white. 

I’d hoped my arrival would mark a new chapter of self-improvement right off the bat. However, looking back on my first two years here, my mental health was a mess and the school’s support systems were not—and still aren’t—what I hoped they’d be. 

One of the hardest parts of my upbringing in Nova Scotia was being bi-racial in a place where I was the only person I knew with brown skin. From the ages of seven to 12, I’d pray every night to become someone else because I thought it was my only chance at succeeding in life.

When I turned 12, my beloved dad lost everything he worked so hard to earn, and my parents went through a very ugly and abusive divorce. My father ended up going back to Laos for a year and my family fell apart. My mother spent my college fund to prevent us from losing our home. 

For the next four years, my mom said she didn’t know how to live anymore and suffered every day from extremely poor mental health and a lack of self-worth. 

She started working a job while under the poverty line to support us, and my dad tried his best to get back on his feet.

These circumstances meant my family life differed from most of the kids I knew. At Christmas, my family couldn’t afford a tree so my mom would drag one in from the ditch and wrap old toys—or anything she could find—to put underneath it. 

As the oldest sibling, I tried to assume head of household duties to alleviate my parents’ responsibilities. 

Since I was so focused on my mother’s struggles, it was hard to realize that I was struggling as well. I’d never heard of ‘mental health’ growing up, and though I had friends, I kept all my problems to myself because I assumed none of them would be able to understand what I was going through.

During this time, my community became a support system for my family, with neighbours coming by our house to drop off food or give hugs. I witnessed firsthand how important it is to help those around you, even if it doesn’t directly benefit you.

Once I turned 15, I got into a relationship that resulted in me losing any self-worth I had left. I eventually reached a breaking point and told my guidance counsellor that I didn’t want to live anymore. After, I finally got the sporadic yet impactful help from social workers and mental health professionals in my community I needed. 

After these experiences, at 17, I wanted to flip the script and turn the negatives in my life into something that could increase positivity. I founded Step Above Stigma to raise funds and awareness for mental health, and the Glass Slipper Organization to give underprivileged young women prom dresses for free to reaffirm that their community has their back.

After these experiences, at 17, I wanted to flip the script and turn the negatives in my life into something that could increase positivity. 

Founding these organizations as a 17-year-old girl was intimidating, but I discovered that anything was possible with motivation and a team who shared my vision. 

The process made every bad thing that happened to me feel worth it and enabled other young people to be leaders too. It’s amazing to see the change both organizations continue to make in Nova Scotia, Kingston, and across Canada, by destigmatizing mental health and raising funds to overcome systemic barriers to care. 

Even after starting my organizations, getting mental health treatment, and receiving a $100,000 scholarship to attend Queen’s, I still had lots of self-doubt and coming to Kingston presented a whole new set of challenges. 

In my very first year at Queen’s, I was called a n— and refused service at a restaurant on Princess Street. In my second year, I dealt with sexual harassment and violation.

 I struggled to keep a positive attitude through these difficult experiences. My experiences with racism and sexual assault made me feel like I had very little value, exacerbated by both perpetrators seeing no consequences for their actions. I was hurt by the notion that the people trying to hurt me weren’t even viewing me as a human, let alone their equal.

After a while, I developed practices to help me work through my hardest times that involved diving into the supportive communities around me. Joining clubs on campus like jack.org allowed me to reach out for help when I needed it. Using resources like Good To Talk, the free 24-hour counselling hotline, also helped me maintain an optimistic outlook. 

It’s because of resources like those, as well as the support of my family and friends, that I was able to accomplish some work that I’m truly proud of and receive honours beyond my wildest dreams. 

This year, I’ll become an inductee into Queen’s Tricolour Society as a Tricolour Award recipient. I’ve also had the opportunity to be the Speaker of the House of Commons in Canadian Parliament for four days, received the Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity Impact award for being an executive team member of the African Caribbean Student Association, and was selected as a keynote speaker for the Indigo Girls Conference and the Canadian University Boards Association Conference on mental health. 

To top it all off, I was named one of the Top 22 Under 22 Most Inspirational College Women in the world by Her Campus in 2018.

Some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from my experiences include how community is everything, and it’s vital to find a niche where you feel supported. No matter what, there will always be someone out there willing to support me and listen. Even if I’m too terrified to tell anyone about my problems or doubts, I now know I’m strong enough to support myself until I feel comfortable enough to reach out. 

I’ve also learned that if you do not stand up, fight for what you want and maintain your strategic vison, things will never change.

While mental health resources like the ones I’ve received and created are great, there’s still so much work that has to be done to create an environment where every student can thrive. 

Along with creating the social, institutional and financial infrastructure that can support this vital support movement, donating time and energy to improving mental health care is essential. With persistent advocacy and collaboration with University administration and the Canadian government, we have the potential to save and improve so many lives. 

I’m sure that many people reading this have gone through worse situations than what I’ve been through. Whatever your circumstances, I want you to know that if I could make it out of some seriously dark times to become a strong and truly happy leader, who’s learned to never give up on her dreams, you can too.

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