Sarah Freeburn at one point wasn't sure she was passionate about her major. So in 2018, she dropped out of her university in New Brunswick and returned to P.E.I.
While working on the Island, she heard about UPEI's diversity and social justice studies program. She had previously taken a women's and gender studies course, and she liked to learn more about those complex social issues. So, she enrolled in the program, not knowing where it would take her.
Today, the fourth-year student won a 2022 3M National Student Fellowship for her work on equity, diversity and inclusion at UPEI.
"It's an honour to have received it," Freeburn told CBC's Island Morning. "I am really excited to have this opportunity and to meet the other recipients and see what we can come up with in terms of our cohort project."
Up to 10 full-time college or undergraduate students from across Canada who have demonstrated outstanding leadership in their lives or at their school get the award each year.
Other than each receiving $1,000, the students receive additional funding to work together on a national project on learning and teaching in higher education.
A club to discuss complex social issues
Among the initiatives that led to her receiving the award is the UPEI Students for Social Justice club, which she started last year.
Since her first year, Freeburn had always wanted to join a student-run club where people can feel comfortable chatting about social issues like racism and sexism and learn from each other.
Unable to find such a club, she spoke with her professor, Ann Braithwaite, about initiating one. It's Braithwaite who nominated Freeburn for the award this year.
"One of the things I really appreciate about Sarah is she really thinks about, 'How do I bring people together?'" said Braithwaite. "And that's, for me, a real model of leadership."
Encouraged by her professor, Freeburn began looking into the steps and paperwork necessary to start a club on campus.
"The process of starting it up was kind of intimidating," she said, but she had done it by September of 2021.
Since then, the club has been organizing get-togethers and movie nights, after which members come back to the UPEI's Campus Life Lounge to discuss the movies' themes, often involving many complex social issues.
"The kind of goal of [the club] was just to create a space where people can come and learn and talk. Especially after COVID, the idea of forming a community that is either on campus or virtually was really important to us because everything had been so distant," Freeburn said.
Initiatives on equity, diversity and inclusion
Besides the club, Freeburn has been working for the L.M. Montgomery Institute for over a year to make its website more accessible.
She has been adding alt text — photo captions describing images to those unable to see them — to all of the existing images on the website, which can help blind and low-vision users.
Freeburn is also working as the equity, diversity and inclusion campus life lead, a new position with UPEI's student affairs department.
"I was able to work there throughout the school year where I could plan events that were related to inclusion and educating the student body, which was really neat," she said.
"I was just busy all the time. I don't know if there necessarily was a way that I did it. The things that I did were important to me, so it wasn't hard for me to make time for them."