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Vancouver Island student wins a $70,000 scholarship through TD

Comox Valley’s own Sophia Vaillant uses STEAM as a way to connect people
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At 17 years old, Comox Valley student Sophia Vaillant brings home the 2023 TD Scholarships for Community Leadership, coveted by more than 27,000 Canadian high schoolers. (Poto provided by Sophia Vaillant)

At 17 years old, Comox Valley student Sophia Vaillant brings home the TD Scholarship for Community Leadership, coveted by more than 27,000 Canadian high schoolers.

Each year, since 1995, the Toronto-based bank has been awarding this $70,000 bursary to 20 students across Canada who have proven to be ‘exceptional leaders’ and made a meaningful and lasting impact in their respective communities.

After speaking with Vaillant and witnessing the projects she spearheaded in the past, it becomes evident that she embodies this scholarship’s ethos.

A tinkering multitasker at heart, Vaillant’s social engagement truly started taking root in Grade 11 at Comox’s Highland Secondary.

Passionate about STEAM - science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics - she joined her school’s robotics club, which was the only option available at the time.

Yet, several years after being introduced to this extracurricular activity, she was left somewhat disillusioned.

“There were so many different ways people can interact with STEAM,” says Vaillant. “It’s not just necessarily about building robots for competitions. You can do all sorts of different things. I didn’t see that diversity of options reflected in any way that I was able to engage with.”

Though she admittedly enjoyed her experience, Vaillant also said that the boy-dominated nature of the club made her feel like it was harder for girls to engage in STEAM.

“I was one of three to five girls in the class at all times,” notes Vaillant. “When you’re one of three girls in the class, it feels really inaccessible and disheartening.”

For these reasons, Vaillant, who was 16 then, founded the Zenius Lab - a mash of Generation Z and the word ‘genius’ - to offer students another outlet to practice STEAM.

Fostering a collaborative and playful approach to problem-solving is the heart of Zenius Lab’s DNA. The project’s approach consists of welcoming design ideas pitched by younger members, which are brought to life with the guidance of older students who serve as mentors throughout the process.

“We use different electronics, robotics and 3D printing methods to make make the actual invention,” mentions Vaillant. “Senior students are still getting to use STEAM, while also working with junior students to whom they introduce to those techniques.”

This initiative eventually led Vaillant to a partnership with the Comox Valley Art Gallery and Navigate NIDES.

“The Comox Valley Art Gallery invited us to do a workshop specifically themed around problems that have an impact on our water system,” explains Vaillant. “I also went on a tour of six different learning communities on the Island and the mainland where I ran STEAM workshops for different homeschooling learning communities that are part of NIDES.”

Christine Olsen, a former chairperson for NIDES Parent Advisory Council (PAC), worked closely with Vaillant and granted her the money and resources necessary to make this tour happen.

“Sophia is extraordinary and working with her was an amazing experience,” recalls Olsen. “She is well-spoken and brilliant. As soon as she walked in, she expressed her leadership in ways that made us want to collaborate with her. She has this amazing ability to connect with people.”

Stunned by the young women’s entrepreneurship and flair, Olsen noted that she was the first student in years to propose a project to the PAC.

It was while touring the province this last March that she received an email from TD saying that she was one of the 20 recipients chosen from a shortlist of 80 candidates.

In May, Vaillant flew to Toronto to receive her award and had the chance to network with other recipients who came from all over the country.

When asked about what she would do with this substantial amount of money, Vaillant’s answer is plain and simple: she wants to reinvest it in the community.

Vaillant is set to leave the valley this upcoming fall to continue her studies at the University of Victoria School of Business. More than just helping her alleviate the financial burden of paying rent and school-related expenses, the money will allow Vaillant to concentrate all her efforts on creating new ways to support her community.

“I didn’t get where I am now all on my own. I had good community support when growing up,” adds Vaillant. “I want to continue to build that kind of community so that the youth can grow up with the same sort of support I had and get to a point where they can also make cool community changes as well as be recognized for their work.”

Already brimming with ideas, Vaillant is in an ongoing conversation with a NIDES teacher to look at possibilities of developing more workshops that will meet their curriculum needs.

“My career path has evolved from being this ‘token girl in STEAM’ to looking more on the management and community engagement side,” says Vaillant.

As a firm proponent that a 17-year-old should not have specific plans for her future, Vaillant stays open to new opportunities and embraces the adage ‘go with the flow’.

Though nothing is set in stone for Vaillant, people supporting her certainly see a bright future lying ahead of this young trailblazer.

“We often criticize the younger generation, but they are also the ones who are responsible for changing the future of our society,” notes Olsen. “Sophia is already one of those change-makers.”

To support Sophia Vaillant in her future endeavours or pitch her potential ideas for community involvement, visit sophia.vaillant.ca

READ MORE: Comox maker creates special 3D tool for hospital use



olivier.laurin@comoxvalleyrecord.com

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