The gym at Glenview Park Secondary School was packed with 450 laughing and learning students on Monday, May 13 who had a chance to hear from the internationally renowned speaker, Keith Hawkins. His visits to GPSS and Galt Collegiate Institute earlier in the same day were made possible thanks to the generous support of the Waterloo Regional Police Service. The crowd listened quietly to his energetic talk, which was peppered with laughter and anecdotes from his life that helped students to understand the greatness that is contained inside them and the opportunities that life has to offer.

Hawkins started by describing his experience as a student in both high school and college, where he overcame challenges including a sick family member and an abusive stepfather. He pushed students to chase their dreams as they head towards graduation, not just the prospect of a paycheck. “JOB stands for just over broke,” Hawkins said. He argued, instead, students should focus on excelling at doing something they have a real passion for doing.

The fact that the audience was sitting in front of him, Hawkins explained, was a sign they are invested in their learning and improving their lives. They are already striving for, and wanting more, for themselves, that much is clear. They have the flame of interest in learning, they just need to focus on fanning it. “It’s not your IQ, as much as it’s your ‘I will’,” he said.

Hawkins also challenged students on the common belief that life automatically gets better after graduation. “Nothing changes, but you,” he said. “Maturity is not an age, maturity is an action.” Students learned that to truly progress and evolve on their learning journey through life, they need to be the ones driving, rather than letting life decide the path for them.

Reflecting on how his speech went, Hawkins was impressed with the response he was seeing from the students. “The crowd, to me, was energetic and ready for growth,” he said, noting that’s not always the case. He explained that for students, there’s often anxiety that they are not doing well enough, or that they can be doing better. His hope for the students who were in the audience is that they learn to find validation within themselves, rather than looking for it elsewhere. “I hope it ignites the small, positive voice within,” Hawkins said.

After speaking to the crowd of 450 students, Hawkins headed to a classroom session that allowed him to work closely with a smaller number of students. The participants in this group represented the broad spectrum of students at GPSS, from those that were highly engaged, to those that were disengaged. Hawkins led them through a number of exercises that helped them learn more about themselves and each other. His hope is that this closer, more powerful interaction makes an impression on the students and inspires them to strive for more during their time at school, whether it be in the classroom or in the hallway with their peers.

“Great kids, hate to see them leave,” Hawkins said quietly as the group left the room following their session.

For Sabrina Krysko, a teacher and student activities director at GPSS, this is exactly the experience she was hoping the students would have with Hawkins. She had seen him speak at past Ontario Student Leadership Conferences, and the power of his speeches resonated with her.

The goal for his visit was to speak with students about kindness and belonging – two areas that can be challenging at the secondary level. “Kids struggle to figure out who they are and where they belong,” said Krysko. “I’m just really grateful we had this opportunity.” Her hope is that the grade nine, ten and eleven students are inspired by his message and put it into action.

To Krysko, the Hawkins’ visit to the school was a clear success. The 450 students who attended listened intently to his words and she could see the excitement they carried with them as they filed out after. “The kids were so fully engaged,” she said, adding that it’s clear his message resonated with the students.

Speaking with grade 11 student, Aaliyah Anghad, it’s easy to see this was the case. She was initially surprised to see how Hawkins spoke so candidly with students, even noting it was odd to see he didn’t take the stage for his speech, but instead opted to stay on the ground floor, level with the students. Anghad especially appreciated Hawkins’ focus on the importance of enjoying the moment, rather than being focused on what is to come. “I feel like a lot of students are worried about their future,” she said. “It stresses me out a lot.” Anghad planned to put Hawkins’ advice into action and work towards focusing on what she can control, instead of what she can’t.

Adriana Ofrim, another grade 11 student at GPSS, was pleasantly surprised by Hawkins’ speech. “It wasn’t really what I expected,” said Ofrim. “I really liked his message.” Ofrim was especially struck by Hawkins’ stories of the struggles in his early life. “He really showed you can turn your life around no matter what, and it starts with you,” she said.

Ofrim was inspired by his message to actively think more positively about herself and other people. Thoughts become reality, she explained and her plan is to think better things about herself and her peers. “I feel like I should believe in myself a little bit more and I kind of undermine myself sometimes,” said Ofrim. “Never underestimate yourself.”

Reflecting on how the day went, Hawkins was in good spirits. “I just feel exhausted,” he said with a laugh. He wanted to send a message to the entire Waterloo Region District School Board and let them know the work they do every day is making a real difference for students. “We’re not doing good in this district, we’re doing better than good,” he said. “You’re not trying, you’re doing it.”