“I had to work to support my family, but I was scared of getting Covid”

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Ayah Khan, 18

School: TDSB Virtual Secondary School
Neighbourhood: Flemingdon Park
What’s next: Political science at Harvard

I live in a small apartment in Flemingdon Park with my mom and my sister. My mom went back to school recently to become a business analyst and she’s been struggling to find work. It’s important for me to financially contribute to my family. Before the pandemic, I was working at the takeout counter at Swiss Chalet four or five days a week, and about 60 hours a week during the summer. I got used to studying on the bus and doing homework during my breaks.

Applying to university in the States had been on my mind for a couple of years. Social justice is important to me—I’ve been volunteering since I was in Grade 7 at community organizations and retirement homes—and I thought about studying something in that vein at Harvard. That was my “reach” school. I thought about the difference I could make if I were studying under some of the greatest minds in the world. I had thought about taking my SATs, then Covid hit.

I had to keep working at Swiss Chalet to support my family, but I was scared about getting Covid. There was a lot of uncertainty around the virus. In May, I ended up changing jobs to work at Ultimate Kitchens, a ghost kitchen in Leaside. I learned how to do food prep at the different restaurant stations like Harvey’s, Swiss Chalet, Montana’s, New York Fries and Milestones. They have really good safety protocols there, so I felt more comfortable. And I really liked the people I worked with.

Once Grade 12 started, things got really stressful. I knew how important my grades were. I thought to myself, I can’t afford to make any big mistakes. I opted to attend virtual school to keep my family safe, but it was a big adjustment. There were new teachers and a new curriculum. I tried to keep in touch with the teachers from my home school, but it wasn’t the same.

The difficulty of virtual learning and the quadmester system was that my workload was always inconsistent. One week, we would have very few assignments. Then, the following week, I’d have three projects. Balancing work and school was a nightmare. And I knew I couldn’t afford to let my grades drop. Some nights I’d only sleep four hours so I could get all my schoolwork done. I wanted to put together the best possible application, so I decided I was going to put all my time and effort toward applying to one university in the U.S.: Harvard. But I also applied to universities in Ontario as a backup. And I needed time to write essays for my Harvard application, so I cut my work shifts down from four to three a week. I was worried about my family’s finances, but luckily my little sister had just turned 14, and I got her a job as a dishwasher at Ultimate Kitchens. Between the two of us, and my savings from last summer, we made it work.

In December, my aunt died from Covid. Due to pandemic restrictions, we could only attend the funeral virtually. It was really hard seeing her kids, my cousins, in so much pain. My community has been hit hard by Covid. Flemingdon Park is a hot spot because we have big families living in small apartments. And a lot of them are essential workers. So if they contract the virus, they come home and spread it to the whole family. We try to keep in touch with our neighbours and bring over food, but we also want to respect each other’s space. We recently got back into doing video calls with some of them, which was nice.

I didn’t tell any of my friends that I was applying to Harvard. I didn’t want them to think I had unrealistic expectations. April 6 was the day I’d find out if I got in. I was sitting at the computer, refreshing my email all day. By 7 p.m., I still hadn’t received an email, and I thought, I definitely didn’t get in. Then my aunt texted me saying I needed to create an account at the Harvard website and log in to see if I was accepted. By this point, my mom was sitting next to me at my computer—like, she was sharing my seat. Once I put in all my information and logged in, I saw, “Welcome Class of 2025.” I clicked on a new notification on the corner and it said, “Congratulations, Ayah.” I thought: No way. My mom started crying so loudly. There were lots of tears. My sister was right behind us, jumping up and down.

It wasn’t until I called my grandparents later that day that I started crying myself. They were so happy. It was a really beautiful moment, because they risked a lot coming to Canada. It felt so good to make them proud. This was because of them. A couple of days later, I found out that I got a full scholarship, which will cover my tuition and living expenses. That was a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders.


—As told to Andrea Yu