Several years ago, UTM student Wali Shah was simply a young Pakistani boy attending primary school in Canada. From an early age, he was painfully aware of his “new immigrant” status.

While his accented English, cultural Pakistani clothes, and homemade Pakistani food for school lunches were subtle reminders of his status, the most significant thorn in his side was the onslaught of belittlement he received from his peers. Shah began to feel that his hopes of fitting in, making friends, or even passing by unnoticed were not going to materialize.

Needless to say, after years of tolerating ridicule, he did what people expect any teenage boy in a similar situation to do—rebel.

Getting involved with gangs, bashing people, and from his own narration, “getting into all sorts of trouble”, became Shah’s way of life when he hit his teenage years.

His turbulent lifestyle continued until he was faced with assault charges and found himself spending a night in jail at age 15.

Six years later, I sit amazed after listening to Shah’s powerful composition “King of the Castle”.

After Googling him, I learn that along with his slowly growing hip-hop music career, he is also one of the 10 Canadian postsecondary students to have received the prestigious 2015 3M National Student Fellowship Award for demonstrating outstanding leadership.

Shortly before the interview, I receive a call from him. Having just read about another one of his awards, the 2015 Bell Canada’s Youth Hero Award, I’m certain that this is a call intended to reschedule. However, my paranoia dissipates when he mentions how nice the weather is, and requests for the interview to be conducted outdoors.

“I’m so grateful to be here. There are so many children who would do so much for an education at the University of Toronto,” says Shah, a third-year sociology student who was recently named one of Canada’s Top 20 under 20.

Shah repeatedly refers to the struggle his parents faced and how this is something most immigrant families can relate to. Growing up in a small apartment in Canada, he mentions how finances, cultural differences, and bullying were only part of the problem. Shah laughs as he refers to this as a struggle faced by a majority of the student community at UTM—expectations from your parents.

It’s these passionate and heart-wrenching experiences that continue to fuel Shah’s powerful spoken word poetry.

He recounts his own poetry about his early struggles:

“So imagine a child at six years old,
Who was constantly bullied,
Even his parents would scold him,
So thin from malnutrition,
No food in his belly
And no food in his kitchen.”

Following his night in prison, and on the road to turn things around, Shah soon found himself standing outside his English teacher’s office. His teacher patiently heard about his bad day, and then went back inside her office, returning shortly with a book that Shah claims changed his life: The Rose That Grew From Concrete, by Tupac Shakur.

Shah read about and instantly related to all of Shakur’s struggles. He realized the beauty of speaking through poetry, and refers to it as what shaped and has continued to shape a lot of the work he does today.

Shah spoke about some of the work he’s currently involved in. “I’m working with the Peel District School Board, and no one knows about this, so you’re some of the first people to know,” he said excitedly. “We’re collaborating on a project called Change the World, and these videos will hopefully reach every student in Peel, educating them about what we can do to stop bullying.”

Shah was also determined to share his concerns and initiatives for mental health on campus.

Shah shared his secret to where he’s gotten today: take time for yourself. Shah aims to be an educator someday, pursuing his degree in social sciences, and is working towards incorporating art into everyday assessment.

“I would love the day when instead of writing an essay, I could write a poem,” he said.

After we took a moment to rant about the upcoming midterm season, I realized that I had to ask how it felt to have been named one of Canada’s Top 20 under 20. This prompted a shrug from him. “You know, the best part about Top 20—I mean, it’s not even just the award. It’s just that I met 19 other really awesome people.”