If WAC’s organizers had any concerns about hosting the first virtual edition of the annual event, those fears were quickly banished when registrations started pouring in from high schools across the globe.
The conference, run jointly by UCC and Branksome Hall on Feb. 6, attracted more than 600 students from 10 countries.
"Almost every continent was represented," says Krishna Bambawale, a Year 12 student who co-chaired the conference with Lauren Mahony from Branksome Hall. "It was like we found a way to unite people from all over the world in a difficult time."
The theme of the 39th WAC was Together Towards Tomorrow and the program was chosen with the future in mind.
"The idea of how we, as youth, can work collectively to build a more sustainable, equitable world for all was a thread throughout the day," Bambawale says.
The conference opened with Bambawale in conversation with Andy Chisholm ’77, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who now serves on the board of RBC and is an expert on sustainable finance. Chisholm talked about his own career path and touted sustainability as having "unbelievable opportunities" with regard to careers in virtually any field.
Two sets of plenary sessions followed, focusing on four themes: Businesses in COVID-19, Sink or Swim; Commercial Space Flight, the Future of Humanity; Social Justice, Our History and Our Future; and The Future of Social Media, We Are the Product. Mehrdad Baghai '84 was among the featured speakers, discussing social justice.
In between the plenary sessions, attendees were assigned to breakout rooms to meet each other and make connections, a popular feature of the event. The organizers also put together an exhibition featuring startup companies for students to explore.
George Elliott Clarke, Toronto’s former poet laureate and a U of T professor, delivered the closing keynote speech, outlining the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in forging a sustainable future. "Every single one of us alive today possesses a heritage of heroism. You are only here today because your ancestors overcame every possible calamity," he told the gathering. "You have already inherited greatness and the potential for more greatness and you will need all of it in getting us together toward tomorrow."
The day ended with a panel featuring two Canadian entrepreneurs: Allan Lau of Wattpad and Eva Lau of Two Small Fish Ventures.
Alvin Jugoon, a UCC design and mathematics teacher and WAC adviser, was extremely proud of the conference the student team put together. "There was a defining moment in the summer when, once the WAC team decided to move forward with hosting a virtual conference, there was no doubt that they would rise to the challenge and confidently face any uncertainty that lay ahead," he says. "There is an inner craving youth have to coalesce and be a defining force in what the future looks like."
Catharine Erb, who teaches Latin and is also a WAC adviser, called the event a "remarkable experience," especially given the move to an online setting. "I am just so amazed at the abilities of the students and how they rose to embrace a whole new set of skills to make this happen," she says. "Their leadership qualities flourished."
Bambawale notes that there may be no going back after hosting a virtual conference this year. "Our pivot was a success and students around the world now expect to be involved in this conference," he says. "Every attendee who isn’t graduating this year is eager to come back again."