Guiding the path for first-generation students: Rhodes Scholar Nick Harris gives back

Guiding the path for first-generation students: Rhodes Scholar Nick Harris gives back

As a first-generation student from Windsor, Ontario, Nick Harris, BA(Hons)’22, remembers a time he couldn’t imagine finishing high school, let alone going to university.

Coming from a working-class family, and having contended with a long-term disability in high school, a university education wasn’t in the cards for him. His family didn’t have the finances to help with tuition, and besides, he didn’t even know how to apply. Getting a job after high school seemed good enough.

“But there were people who believed in me,” says Harris. “Their interest and faith in me lit a fire under me and got me where I am today.”

Today, he is a Rhodes Scholar working towards a Master of Philosophy in International Relations at Oxford University in the UK. He’s also involved in student politics, serving as Vice President (Post Graduate Education and Access) of the Oxford University Student Union.

Nick Harris, sits on a stone wall with trees, grass and shrubs behind him. He wears a green shirt and taupe jeans.Before that, he was at the University of King’s College on a Loran Scholarship, a full-ride awarded on the basis of character, commitment to service and leadership potential. He was deeply involved in the King’s community during his four years in Halifax, serving as financial VP (twice) and president of the King’s Students’ Union.

Grateful for the mentors “who made his dreams possible,” Harris, 24, wants to serve as a mentor too. In that capacity, he created the Windsor Essex Catholic District School Board (WECDSB) Trailblazer Mentorship Program for first-generation students like himself from Windsor and the surrounding area.

“The idea is this: for me, mentorship has been huge in my life, from high school to now. So, I wondered, how do I give back? … I sent off an email (to the school board) outlining an idea and the next day, I had a response. It was that quick.”

One first-generation student from each of eight Windsor-area high schools was invited to participate. The Grade 11 students meet monthly for group sessions and one-on-one calls with Harris to discuss such topics as getting involved in community, the benefits of volunteering, selecting the right school, financial need and applying for scholarships and bursaries. The program began in January 2024 and will run for a year, at which time another cohort of Grade 11s will be recruited.

Recently, one of Harris’ mentors from King’s—President William Lahey—made a trip to Windsor and met with the group in person on a visit organized by WECDSB lead guidance counsellor Lisa Burke.

Both student council presidents at their undergraduate alma maters, Harris and Lahey have a lot else in common.

From the Miramichi River Valley in New Brunswick, Lahey’s working class parents didn’t go to university and were limited in the help they could provide to their own children in pursuing that option. But a visit with the encouragement of an older brother to Mount Allison University’s campus changed everything for Lahey; he happened to meet professors who later became friends and mentors. One of those professors, Mount Allison President Guy R. MacLean, was a huge influence, and encouraged Lahey to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship, which he did—successfully—in 1983.

Lahey, in turn, did the same for Harris four decades later.

“All through my professional life, every choice I’ve made has been influenced by mentors,” says Lahey, reached in his office on campus on a sunny afternoon. “I think the key is to being open to mentorship and deliberate about finding role models.”

Lahey enjoyed the meeting with the Grade 11s. “It’s clear to me that they’re engaged. They asked such thoughtful questions. It’s so important for first-generation kids to be involved in these conversations they might not otherwise have. Conversations like what kind of degree to go for, what university to apply to, whether to live at home or go away … these are conversations that happen with my own children all the time.”

He’s continually impressed by Harris, whom he says made an immediate impact from the moment he arrived at King’s. “Positivity radiates out from him,” he says. “He was at the heart and soul of our community.”

For his part, Harris is excited about the Trailblazers program and the chance to give back when others, like Lahey, have been so generous and kind to him.

“To me, this is love,” says Harris, who plans to follow up his master’s degree at Oxford by going to law school. “Community, mentorship, giving back … in my eyes, these are expressions of love.”

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