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Students from universities across Quebec were honoured for exceptional leadership and contributions to society at an October 6 gala in Sherbrooke. The Forces Avenir Awards are presented each year to students showing commitment to the enhancement of subjects such as justice, arts, environment and health.
This year, four Avenir Awards were presented in recognition of work by McGill students.
Water for the World won the Avenir Excellence trophy and a $15,000 prize for their work in educating youth about potable-water issues across the world. Initiated by Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapters from McGill, École Polytechnique de Montréal and Concordia University, the group toured high schools and CEGEPs to educate youth about the importance of access to safe drinking water. Each high school "team" represented a country and was challenged to build a filter to clean water using only the resources and often severely restricted funds available to people in that country.
Medical student Megan Landes received a Personality Avenir Award for her commitment to international development and women's health. She recently completed medical studies at McGill and is pursuing a master's in science in reproductive and sexual health research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Landes has worked in maternity wards and on a Maternal and Neonatal Health project in West Africa, but says she first knew she wanted to contribute to international development when she worked in Costa Rica with Youth Challenge International. "We lived in a village, went to work on this aqueduct and taught water-borne disease workshops and English classes in the schools. This was my first taste of international development, and I guess the spark that started it all."
While at McGill, Landes became involved with Medical Students for Choice and conducted research into McGill's medical curriculum. "Surprisingly, we had about 10 minutes of lecture in our reproductive health unit on abortion and about 10 hours on infertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization ... The balance seemed a little skewed. We have been working with the curriculum to develop ways of sensitizing students to issues of reproductive rights and have made some progress getting lectures and small group sessions into the curriculum." Once her formal education is over, she hopes to open up a medical practice that allows her to travel to continue international development work.
AlterHéros, founded by computer engineering student Marc-Olivier Ouellet, was awarded the Communication, Education and Society Avenir Award for dedication to combatting homophobia and demystifying homosexuality through education. Ouellet created a bilingual website (www.AlterHéros.com) to provide an effective and anonymous way to access information, especially for teenagers with questions they may not feel comfortable asking of their parents or teachers. This site offers selected articles on a range of topics, as well as an "Ask the Expert" service. With its team of volunteers, AlterHéros works closely with local and national organizations and is a founding member of the Coalition Jeunesse Montréalais de Lutte à l'Homophobie and the Quebec Alliance for Queer Youth.
The Asclepius Project, started by McGill medical student Adam Hofmann, received a Health Avenir Award for commitment to holistic medicine. Hofmann says he began medical school with a "perception of what it meant to be a physician, a healer — kind, caring, empathetic, involved in the needs and lives of one's patient." Once in school, he learned about many crucial health issues, but found himself adrift from his original vision of what a physician is. When he heard a lecture by visiting professor Michael Kearney on palliative care, Hofmann found a philosophy that resonated with his own vision. "I extrapolated from his teaching that a physician — no matter if they are a surgeon, family doctor, psychiatrist or any other type — has the power and the duty to develop an understanding of a patient's subjective experience of illness, and to take into consideration all of the personal, as well as the physical, aspects of illness."
Hofmann founded the Asclepius Project, named after the Greek god of healing, to help himself focus on why he started medical school to begin with. He says his greatest motivator in his work are the patients: "My ovarian cancer patient, Mrs. M., who described to me what seemed to be horrible treatment by her prior physicians; Mr. S., who stayed in hospital for weeks until I met him without having been told by his doctors what he was actually being kept there for; and Mr. B., a brave young man from whom I learned what it meant to be facing mortality." This award money will help to set up an Asclepian Library and to launch the annual Asclepian Research Prize in Humanistic Medicine.
Personality Avenir finalist Clive Chang is an honours student carrying a double course load. He is working toward a bachelor of commerce and bachelor of music and is the youngest conductor to be with the McGill Savoy Society. Chang is involved with community service through the Golden Key Honour Society and recently ran his first full marathon in Montreal. "I hope to one day form an organization that provides disadvantaged youths with the necessary resources to pursue musical studies. The arts, specifically music, have always played a big role in my life. I realize that not all individuals around the world have been lucky enough to have the educational opportunities that I have had, and I want others to experience the many benefits of an arts education. I dream of eventually travelling around the globe to teach music to children in poor areas of the world." As for the immediate future, Chang is composing the processional hymn for the McGill Model United Nations Assembly, to be held in January 2005. "The conference involves over 1,500 students from all over North America, and I am very excited about getting involved with it."
A Mutual Aid, Peace and Justice Avenir Award finalist was the Montreal chapter of Peace by Peace, run by 150 McGill volunteers who have worked with 500 grade-five students to educate youth about peaceful resolutions to conflict. They hope to spread the program to all Montreal elementary schools and universities.
The SCALA (Sharing Computer Access Locally and Abroad) Project was also a finalist in the category of Mutual Aid, Peace and Justice. This group is a part of McGill EWB, and has built four Information and Communication Technology Centres with 45 computers in the Philippines to benefit youth in the communities.
Women in House is run by students from the McGill Political Science Association and was a finalist for the Communications, Education and Society Avenir Award. The group was set up to put young women in touch with female political leaders, such as MPs, ministers and senators. Women in House promotes the greater presence of women and minorities at all levels of government and political institutions.