Every year, the U of T Alumni Relations Office interviews three people from the graduating class to decide upon a valedictorian. Being one of the three this year, Nolan Anderson, a fifth-year student pursuing a psychology major and two minors in philosophy and French, was successfully selected as valedictorian for the graduating class of 2017.

The Medium sat down with Anderson to reflect on his undergraduate years, especially his involvement, achievements, and struggles over the years.

“I’ve been involved in two main areas, sports and volunteering for mental health, in my first year at UTM and second year of school because I transferred from McGill, where I had a bit of an experience with some mental health issues,” says Anderson.

“When I transferred, having recovered and being in the process of recovery, I wanted to keep learning and helping others, because I found that helping others helped me, and so I started volunteering with [the Health and Counselling Centre] and then [Peer Health Educators],” says Anderson. He continued further with PHE after being hired as a Team Leader for the Mental Health group, where he became involved UTMental, a campaign which aimed to raise awareness about mental health issues through conversation.

“These experiences were a bit more [time-intensive], but it was definitely a worthwhile experience to reach more people and challenge myself to share my story, which is at the same time scary, but also very important,” says Anderson.

Anderson believes mental health is a critical issue for post-secondary students, who tend to experience anxiety and depression that comes out in different ways, along with the stress that is involved with university. He says, “It’s good to have resources like the HCC, and it was good for me to be able to be a part of that.”

Anderson continued with his work on Mental Health Advocacy with a national network of young leaders, known as jack.org, who give talks to raise awareness about mental health issues.

“I’ve been involved with them for the past few years. I went out to conferences, and then I was also involved with a program called the Jack Talk program, so I got trained [to be] a speaker,” he says. “I gave about 20 talks at high schools across Ontario about mental health, why it’s important, try to normalize the conversation and share a bit of my story.”

Anderson describes the work to be similar to his work at PHE. “Just talk about what these issues are, what stigma is and how to take care of yourselves and others, which is actually really simple, and so it’s cool to see the impact there.”

On the notion of stigma, Anderson refers to the five years he has spent here.

“Most of my friends have graduated, and there is a slight stigma associated with that—but I’ve enjoyed my time here, and I didn’t see the point in rushing through it,” he says.

“If I didn’t come back this year, I would haven’t met the royal family either.”

Anderson was chosen to represent the jack.org network at the royal visit of 2016. “In October, I traveled to British Columbia with 12 other students, who were speakers and chapter leaders, to talk to the royal family about youth leadership in mental health.”

Anderson also mentions his involvement with sports.

“I’ve been involved [in sports] since the beginning, and I’ve always played a competitive level of soccer. But then when I came to UTM, I decided that I would take a step back and just play for fun, because there is no Varsity here, which was great, because it made me rediscover some of the fun that I was missing.”

He adds further “This did make me realize I put a lot of pressure on myself the first year to do it all and succeed, so just focusing more on taking care of myself and those sorts of activities was very beneficial; and then eventually I did get to play Varsity when it came out here, but still keeping in mind that I couldn’t push myself too hard and knowing my limits was important.”

Anderson emphasizes the importance of the support he received from his family and friends when he transferred by saying that without them, “I wouldn’t have been able to open up and share, because sharing is also a risk, and now I’m aware of which situations are right to share in, because you still want to be mindful of the message so that it does have impact.”

He mentions how during his experience as an executive for club called Burst Your Bubble, Chad Jankowski (then, health education coordinator) reached out to him as a potential volunteer for the Health and Counselling Centre. Anderson also describes how after a few years of working together, Jankowski nominated him for a Gordon Cressy Student Leadership award, through which he was selected to be interviewed for valedictorian.

“Taking psychology helped me ground my understanding in regard to the real aspect of psychological disorders, because it gives you the language you need for talks,” Anderson says. “I’ve been referred to as the mental health guy, and basically I have my opinions and everybody has those, but in a public setting, you need to put those aside to give respect to a diversity of experiences.”

Anderson also mentions this as one of his reasons for continued involvement with Jack.org. “The staff develops strategies based on evidence, and that is why it is youth-led because it’s more effective. I found that really cool, and that’s why I’ve been so involved, because their approach is very innovative.”

“Seeking support is okay. Both mental health and academic help are actually related, and to use smaller steps towards breaking the inertia is very helpful,” he adds.

He also mentions how, “I think for me, school is not a race to the end. You want to be successful of course, but it’s a time to also enjoy the process, because I’ve gained so much from these experiences, tangible skills, [such as] public speaking at jack.org.”

Anderson also completed a full-time internship at jack.org in the summer and emphasized the importance of being involved early on to build connections and networks which may help later.

Anderson encourages seeking support by encouraging others to “ask for help when you need it. The earlier you do it, the less are the chances that it will escalate. The same can be said for academic help, because school is your focus. Understanding how to prioritize your tasks, and understanding that if you’re going to succeed, it will take sacrifice, so don’t worry if it’s not going your way. It wasn’t going my way initially. You need to find a balance.”

Anderson isn’t completely decided on where he is headed to after graduation. He elaborates by saying, “I would like to look into programs more seriously. People like to have those plans laid out, but I found with gaining experience that I just want to do well with what I’m doing, and making decisions as they come along. Initially I had really high goals, and I would be really stressed if I wasn’t actively achieving them, but recently, I’ve learnt how to mellow down.”

Anderson will address the Class of 2017 at the Last Lecture event, hosted by the Alumni Association, where the anticipated keynote speaker is UTM alumnus Alfredo Tan (H.B.Sc.), who is the group director and global marketing solutions for Facebook/Instagram.