Before having his life changed in a way that continues to amaze him, Chinemerem Chigbo made a commitment to change the lives of others.
Currently in his second year of computer engineering at the University of Waterloo on a 2020 TD Scholarship for Community Leadership, Chigbo came to Canada as a child, eventually settling with his family in Winnipeg. Looking back, he understands that the guidance he received along the way shaped who he is today.
“I was born in Nigeria,” says the outgoing and engaging 18-year-old, “and we moved to the U.K., and then to different places in Canada. Before going to Winnipeg, I lived in Mississauga. So I’ve been on the move a lot of my childhood, but the one thing that kind of remained constant was the actions of my parents. My parents do a lot of volunteering and a lot of giving back to the community, so they are very busy people.
“That idea of always trying to give back,” Chigbo continues, “is something that, despite going to all these different places, has been a constant in my life. And it’s something that I try to carry forward.”
It was during a difficult time in high school in Winnipeg that Chigbo seized on the idea that, as taught by his parents, he had the ability to make the world a better place. The suicide of a close friend in grade 10 unleashed a confusing flood of emotions, the grief at times being hard to process. Eventually Chigbo understood he needed someone to talk to.
“Thinking back on it, it took me a while to realize how I even felt,” he acknowledges. “I needed to talk to counsellors, and through that process, it helped me see that there are people out there willing to listen. Just talking about something can make it a whole lot better. That’s obvious after the fact. But I feel like a lot of guys are pretty averse to that.”
“After having the opportunity to discuss my feelings, I felt like a weight was lifted off,” Chigbo continues. “I thought it would be great if other people, regardless of what they were going through, were given the opportunity to do something similar. Especially guys, because I feel like there’s a very particular culture between guys where you kind of keep things to yourself.”
After coming through the darkness, Chigbo began thinking about how his classmates and peers might benefit from a place where they could discuss their troubles and worries. Where they could discuss why it’s sometimes hard to talk about feelings and insecurities. Where, even though they were still boys, they could challenge notions of what it means to be a man in a world that has long-entrenched ideas about masculinity. And, importantly, where they weren’t talking to adults, but mentoring each other.
After consulting with school officials, Chigbo got the green light to set up what he called The Heads-Up Guys Club. Initially, and perhaps predictably, there wasn’t exactly a stampede to the meetings.
“It started out with just a couple of people, and at first everyone was pretty walled off,” Chigbo admits.
But over time The Heads-Up Guys Club numbers began to swell, partly, Chigbo says with a laugh, because he had a pretty good idea of how to attract teenage boys.
“I would make food and bring it to each one of the meetings,” he says. “That’s how you convince them to come to the meetings – tell them there’s going to be food there.”
And soon, his fellow students – often more than 20 per session – began showing up for different reasons. The Heads-Up Guys Club proved equally successful when Chigbo helped launch it at other schools.
“Over time it was pretty great, guys having the opportunity to speak candidly, hearing other people’s experiences and just listening,” Chigbo says. “High schoolers can be smartasses, but they can also be sensitive. It surprised me how caring and kind everyone was.”
The Heads-Up Guys Club didn’t just help change the lives of those who showed up to share, it also changed the life of the person who founded it. In recognition of his efforts, Chigbo was awarded a $70,000 TD Scholarship for Community Leadership, which has proved invaluable for his software-engineering studies. Without the scholarship, he suggests, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make the expensive move from Winnipeg to the University of Waterloo.
“I don’t scream a lot,” he says with a laugh, “but I did when I got the news. Kind of life-changing – I’m not going to lie.”
Chigbo is philosophical when it comes to where we are as a society today – for every atrocity we see on the nightly news, there are movements like Black Lives Matter making a difference.
“Things will get worse sometimes, but things will also get better,” he opines. “In the long term, humanity will pull through. I believe in humanity. All we can do is try to help those around us.”
And to that end, Chigbo already knows what he wants to do with this computer engineering degree once he’s finished school. His goal is as simple as it is ambitious and inspiring: to change lives.
“Software is great because it allows people to create so much with so little,” he says excitedly. “So something I want to do is go back home to Nigeria. I feel like software and teaching is something that I can give back to the community. You can change so much with so little. So to empower, whether it’s with coding or whatever it is I’m able to give, will help people grow and adapt to this world that’s constantly changing. That’s something I’d really love to do.”
Read more from TD and Black History Month here.