This article is part of Empowerment Squared’s Community Voices series, which highlights the stories, aspirations, and accomplishments of members of the Empowerment Squared community – in their own words – through interviews.
Empowerment Squared volunteer writer Amy Schafer recently connected with Abbira Nadarajah and Mathieu Chenier, co-Presidents of Empowerment Squared McMaster (E2@Mac), to learn more about their backgrounds, efforts, and vision.
It has always been popular to fret about the state of ‘young people nowadays.’ But Abbira Nadarajah and Mathieu Chenier, demonstrate why oldsters have nothing to worry about. They have helped forge the dozens of Empowerment Squared volunteers at McMaster into a club. They volunteer, raise money, network, and have a good time doing it. I think the future is in safe hands! Enjoy this conversation with these young leaders.
– Amy Schafer
Amy: Thank you for sitting down with me today. How did you join the Empowerment Squared community?
Abbira: For me, I found it through a Facebook link for the Class of 2022 and thought it was a really cool volunteering opportunity. At the time I was in first year and I didn’t know Hamilton very well, so I thought it would be an opportunity to meet new people and to get to know the city a little better.
Mathieu: I’m not from the area, either. In high school I did a fair amount of extracurricular activities, I had a job, etcetera, and when I moved to Hamilton I lost all that, I lost my sense of community. In first year, I was looking for stuff to do and I found out about Empowerment Squared; it sounded interesting to me, so I took a chance on it.
And what has kept you here?
Abbira: When I started working with the programming and mentoring, I learned a lot from the kids. I learned about educational equity and just the way that, even in my own personal experience, with my sister and me growing up as second generation Canadians, there are certain barriers, certain opportunities that I kind of framed as “this is how everyone experiences it,” but when you grow up and see things from a distance, you see that’s not supposed to be reality and it pushes you to change that narrative. Through E2 I felt like I was able to provide advantages, provide opportunities with the skill set that I had to support these kids, and they could thrive, could use their education in so many different ways.
I took it as an opportunity to give back to the community. I would say that I’ve taken a lot from the community and always have felt so supported within E2, whether it be as a mentor or with this club. I was also an E2 scholarship recipient. It’s been something I have been able to take a lot away from, and I’ve always wanted to give a lot back to the community as well, and the E2 community specifically.
I think that give-and-take is so important to highlight. All of us who are mentors say that the kids give us as much as we give them.
Abbira: A hundred percent. There have been so many times when I have gone into Homework Circle stressed, and I’ll be there with the kids, and that one hour it just *makes a relaxing motion*: ah. When I do e-movement, I genuinely feel so refreshed. And I always stay back to do mindfulness with the other mentors, because whoever does it, they do an incredible job at getting everyone so present and in the moment and focused on what is right in front of you, which is that community, so it gives a lot back to you as a mentor as well.
Mathieu: I started doing it, and I think – same as Abbira – I would come away from E2 just so energized. I started on Wednesdays and I would always look forward to those days. I’d usually have dinner with one of my friends afterwards, and I’d always tell him about tutoring and how much fun it was. Through mentoring, I found out I really like teaching and it’s something I’ve taken to heart. That’s one thing that keeps me around. Another thing, I reflected back on my own education and how lucky I was to have had the experience I had. From pre-k to grade school to high school – I don’t know if I could have got a better education. I was so lucky with the teachers I had, just the way they taught me to look at things and see the world. I don’t know how I managed to get that hand in life. Now, I think everyone should get that high quality of education. I really believe that. We need to be giving everyone that chance. But not everyone gets it. That’s pretty blatant to me, that there’s not equal opportunity in education – but there should be. That’s the other thing that keeps me around. I really want to be sure that we’re giving everyone equal opportunity to education.
I feel like as soon as you see that inequality, you say to yourself: no, this can’t persist, I’ve got to do what I can to help get rid of this. With these kids and my own, I’ve gotten to see how one-on-one teaching has a huge effect. Like if there was a bit of math they didn’t understand, we could sit and work on it until they had it and it was just second nature. But in a classroom, everyone has to keep moving on as a pack.
Mathieu: Like you said, the one-on-one investment – that can really boost you, because sometimes you just need to spend that extra time and effort with the kids until they start learning to find the tools themselves and then they run with it.
How did E2 @ Mac come to be?
Mathieu: The club has been around for a year and a half now. In March 2020, Priya Goorbarry sent an email out to a bunch of the mentors asking if there was interest in creating a student club. Leo Johnson went to McMaster, and the idea was to bring E2 back to Mac. There are so many volunteers who are Mac students. It’s like: what else can we do with this group of volunteers to contribute to E2’s mission? So Priya reached out, then we literally had one meeting in person and then the pandemic hit. I remember my mom picked me up from school, from residence, to go home during the pandemic and I was writing the MSU Club constitution.
Abbira, you started out as head of volunteer engagement, is that right? How did that work?
Abbira: So when I got into that role, I was basically trying to improve the connections between the Mac volunteers who were involved in Empowerment Squared. In the mentoring sessions, you would meet these people, you would know they were in a certain program or in a certain year, and you kind of build a connection with them in that session, but may never work with that person again. But there’s always good conversations with whoever the mentor is. The idea of my role as it started was: make those connections stronger and see if we could provide networking opportunities, and learning from one another within campus but with that passion, that same interest for supporting the community which we see from our volunteering with E2.
What do you think is the value of having a service club like this on campus?
Abbira: One thing is bringing that aspect of mentorship or learning from one another that we really focus on at E2 to campus through events like networking opportunities. Last year we did an event call Conversations to Connections, and it was essentially focused on the idea that within our team there is a lot of expertise or a lot of experience in research, job hunting, volunteer experiences, and we use that in turn to teach others who are looking for those opportunities, like first years or second years, to provide them with that same opportunity, but now they could do so with a bit more knowledge. We wanted the club to bring those aspects of E2 to campus.
I think it also provides a really good leadership opportunity for a lot of Mac students. Obviously at E2 there are a lot of opportunities, like being a Senior Mentor. But with the club, I could personally say that I’ve grown quite a bit with taking on certain roles, certain responsibilities. The online magazine that happened in the spring term, that was a passion project of the VP Finance, Madison Sweeney. We as a team tried to build it up into what it was, and now we see it come to a product, and we’re almost ready to launch that and provide it back to the kids. It’s such a fulfilling feeling to see that from an ideation all the way down to a product. I think that whole leadership skill-building aspect of it is also key. It’s something we took away from this club.
I love that you’ve turned it around, this mentoring experience, that you’ve also given back to yourselves, asking: How can I grow? And passion projects are a great way to do that.
Mathieu: For me, the students who volunteer get an opportunity to understand what might be the social implications of their future work. This is big for me. As an engineering student, we don’t always look at that – this is something we sometimes ignore. We’re not too worried about the social implications of our work, even though the idea of engineering is to use science, math, etcetera to make social change. So opening up to the community to understand who can benefit from solutions or what the problems are is huge for students, and is something E2 and our club can offer to students, whether they be in STEM, Humanities, Social Science. E2 helps open up your world view and gain a broader perspective.
Aside from mentoring, E2 @ Mac does a lot of fundraising. How are you raising money?
Abbira: The first way would be contacting local businesses and some corporations as well, asking for funds in that way. Grace Ogundeji and Shreya Bera (VP and Director of Fundraising and Sponsorship, respectively) have been working really hard on that. At the same time, we’re doing a Donate link on the E2 website and we’re asking for friends, family, supporters to donate whatever they can to also support this. Through our social media, through Homework Circle and word of mouth we’re trying to get as many people as we can to know about the initiative, what it means to us, what it would mean to the participants and why they should support it.
Mathieu: We’ve also reached out to various organizations on campus. And they’ve been very supportive of us. That’s one of the other benefits of being on campus – there’s a lot of support that we’ve been able to find.
Your club raises money for the e-store. The kids in Homework Circle earn points for their good behaviour and hard work every week, which are turned into e-coins. At the end of term, participants trade their e-coins in for rewards at the e-store. How did that become a focal point for E2 @ Mac?
Mathieu: We started doing it because it’s an event that a lot of the mentors like, it’s something that we get to see the kids reap the benefit of at the end of the semester. We’re the ones giving out those e-coins, so we kind of get to see the process from farm to table. And it’s just fun. I think that’s the big thing. It’s one of the great events that E2 does, and we love that last year we were able to support it. It meant a lot to me to be able to do that.
Abbira: We’ll still do it online this year because of the pandemic, but the mentors get to help the participants make a wish list. We get to see what they want.
Mathieu: That process is so much fun, the wish list. It’s something for them to get fired up about.
You mentor, you network, you fundraise – that’s a busy club. What else does E2 @ Mac do?
Mathieu: We also offer a scholarship for a McMaster student who volunteers with Empowerment Squared: the E2 @ Mac Commitment to Community Scholarship. We’ve raised the money for it and will give it out next year. The E2 scholarship committee will decide the recipient based on our selection criteria. It will go to a dedicated McMaster student volunteer with Empowerment Squared who also shows an exceptional commitment to community involvement.
Any final thoughts?
Mathieu: We have a really dedicated team. Everyone cares about E2, their missions, the kids. We’ve got to keep that in mind: everything we do I hope feeds back to the participants. If we’re doing that, I think we’re doing things right.
Abbira: Matt said it so eloquently. We’ll leave it at that.
For more information about E2 @ Mac or to support their fundraising efforts, please use the links below:
- Facebook: @empowermentsquaredmcmaster
- Instagram: @empowermentsqdmac
- Website: https://empower976.wixsite.com/esquaredatmac
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/empowerment-squared-mcmaster
- Link to Donate and Support the E-Store Fundraiser: https://empowermentsquared.org/donate/
- General Member Sign-Up: https://forms.gle/ZWik2pqjZq6sk6SP7
Amy Schaefer is a Hamilton writer and Empowerment Squared volunteer. When she isn’t teaching math and reading, you’ll find her curled up on the couch with her hedgehog, her kitten, and a good book.