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Graduation Keynote Speech - FFCA Alumna Dr. Nurunissa Raj

July 10

Good morning graduating class of 2017!  I am so honored to speak to you and to be able to share the stage with you on this momentous day. Thank you for having me and thank you to the faculty for thinking of me.

Before I share my story with you. I would like to take this opportunity, especially since it is the 150th anniversary of Canada, to say that we are all so fortunate to be living in such a wonderful country. On that note, I think it is important to acknowledge the traditional territories of the Blackfoot and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta along with the Metis Nation of Alberta, Region III from our own city of Calgary and to acknowledge the care they have taken of the land on which we are all gathered today.

It seems like just yesterday I was sitting in your place, relieved to be done and excited for what was to come. Little did I know how fast time would fly and how many challenges I’d face, failures I’d overcome and successes I’d achieve.

When I was in grade 8, I had an appointment with our very own school counselor, Ms. Geran. We laid out my entire life plan on how I could achieve my dreams of becoming a doctor. I can now proudly say that I was able to achieve that goal - even a few years ahead of schedule - but not without a lot of tears, happy and sad, and definitely not without feeling overwhelmed. I remember as a high school graduate I would look at my role models, people whose footsteps I wanted to follow, but I would only see who they were in that moment instead of understanding what it took them to get there. I only saw their successes. From my grade 12 graduation until now, I realized that there was so much more to it than that. Success, failures, doubt, motivation - or a lack thereof - and I realized that I needed to just stop for a moment and think about what I really want with my life. It’s not just exams and studying, it’s finding your passion and having the commitment and dedication to plan and work towards it.

It may seem difficult for some of you to relate to me. We are different people, we may not know each other, and we are at different stages in life. However, what we have in common is that not many years ago I was in the same seat as you and had the same excitement and doubts that you have today, and I can assure you that I would not be where I am today – a 25-year-old FFCA graduate and an MD- had it not been for FFCA and the lessons I learned here. Academics are important, but to succeed in school, in your careers, and in life it’s not just academic knowledge, but also a commendable character, community involvement and strong leadership that are needed -  qualities that carry from the FFCA vision. And as they had done for me, all the faculty members have worked hard to foster these values in each and every one of you. 

So, let’s take a moment and dive into the past. I focused very hard in high school and studying in general for most of my school years and I would probably be called the class nerd if you talk to any of my classmates. However, in grade 11 and 12, I really started thinking about life outside of FFCA and so I started doing things I truly enjoyed and was passionate about! I joined the SU, I joined various volunteering and global organizations in Calgary, I got involved in wedding planning, and made an effort to grow not only academically but also ventured into the community. Not to mention some crazy things just for fun…

The most vivid memory I have of my time at FFCA is “The Prank Wars” with my friends (non-school sanctioned of course). In my last years of school, I had frozen eggs thrown at me and squished into my backpack. I had concentrated chemistry soap dumped in my bag and my pens would bubble every time I tried to write notes. I also had my locker TP’ed.

I have many fond memories of my time at FFCA – too many to recall... Mr. Lowther’s passionate social classes, Ms. Hunnisetts huge smiles, and of course Mr. Symonds intense gym classes, and the CURSED BEEP TEST (low-key best part about graduating: GYM IS OPTIONAL).

And in Grade 12: we all smartened up and were too busy stressing over our 50% diplomas and University applications! This set the tone for my undergraduate studies at the University of Calgary. Undergrad prepped me for success because I decided that instead of following the “recommended” route to a career in medicine, I would just do what I loved. I was studying hard in Biological Sciences, but at the same time was planning art shows, fashion shows, and cultural events and was part of various social clubs, not medical or academic related. I volunteered, not just for my resume, but because these are areas I am passionate about- human rights and international development.

Moving forward into medical school, I very quickly realized that my dream and lifelong goal was awfully tough. There was an  overwhelming amount of information, evaluations on top of being constantly tired and stressed. I recall one night, the day before one of my medical school exams, I was walking to my car to finally go home after hours and hours of reviewing. I got into my car and immediately panicked as my steering wheel was missing!  I called my best friend and I started – hysterically –  explaining to her that someone, somehow had STOLEN MY STEERING WHEEL! A few moments later I realized that I had actually sat in the back seat of my Honda CRV. I blame that on lack of sleep… {On the note of my lack of sleep, my family and friends have a collection of photos of me sleeping at the oddest times in the oddest places, i.e. In a suitcase while I was helping my friend pack. Look out for an Instagram page starting up soon called #NurunSleeps}

Another time that I am not proud of – but will still share with you – is after my first 36-hour hospital shift. In the morning, when we would go to review all our patients, I kept falling asleep with the patient charts in my hand and would wake up because my knees would literally buckle under me. I got to a point where I would feel so tired, and at times frustrated, that I would question myself and my life choices. I would question if I was even cut out to be a doctor. Until something amazing happened. I had my first elective rotation at the Calgary Refugee clinic, and I saw patients from the roughest parts of this world- Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, and others. The lessons I learned from these patients were more valuable than any of my in-class training. It became apparent to me that every exam I wrote, every lecture I listened to, every practice patient I assessed -  translated directly into the real world. From that point on I studied the long nights, went through the rounds, did the patient charts like lives depended on it, because they did. The lesson here is nothing will come easy to you. Whether you are the best doctor, the best lawyer, the best photographer, the best whatever, you are going to face moments in your life when you will question everything you stand for and your own capabilities. In these times take strength from the people who need you and the people rooting for you.

I would like to now share a few points that have helped me on my journey and I’m sure will also help you as you move towards the next phase of your life:

Be Confident but also Resilient – From my father, I learned the concept of “So What?!”. I am someone who loves to make lists and I look back and realize that I have gotten through all the check boxes on my grade 8-career checklist. Graduate high school, check. Get into university, check.  Get into medical school, check. Finish rotations, finish residency, get licensed, check check check. Failing a major exam in my training? Hmm, not check. Facing discrimination from people that were supposed to further my education, not check.  Having to take time off from my training to deal with a family crisis, not check. I have cried and stressed, I have doubted myself many times; sometimes we put more pressure on ourselves than anyone else does. I learned some of these lessons late but eventually I figured out what he means by his So What concept. So what if I fail an exam? I’ll just do it again.  So what if I face criticism? I should work harder to disprove them. So what if I had to take time off, I will still be able to achieve my goal without regretting not being there for my family. It's not to say you shouldn't put in your best effort or that you should just take it easy. Put in an honest effort and don't kick yourself so hard when you fail at something; just pick yourself up, take the encouraging words from your friends and family, and find another way.

Be humble and compassionate: This concept my mom has in order to not think of work as work, but rather as a responsibility we have because of the skills we possess. There were days when I would get frustrated because patients didn’t show up to their appointments, or were late. But when you think for a second and you notice that some patients are fighting to show up on time because they are taking transit across the city. Some cannot even afford transit fare.  Some people have to line up early for shelter space, or at the food bank. At that point, and rightfully so, my appointment is not priority.

Everyone here is privileged enough to attend this school and get an education. we all have certain privileges that others don't. Recognize that and respect it. Recognize that you have the opportunity to learn something regardless of what you choose to do after high school and if you have the ability to learn, then you should utilize those skills and contribute positively to your community, locally and globally.

Learn from others and accept different perspectives -- One of my brothers is a graphic designer who used to be a petroleum engineer and my other brother is in business looking into law school. Their fields would seem much removed from medicine, but the lessons, advice, and solutions I have learned from their experiences and knowledge have definitely helped me in my medical career.  Looking around this graduating class there are many differences I can see, your genders, skin color, eye color, but know that these differences are less than 1/10 percent of our genetic makeup. The real differences don’t lie in what the eye can see, but in what life path you choose and how you contribute to society.

In university and in your careers, expand your presence from the library and workplace and be a part of your communities. Join friends and neighbors in the activities of schools, community centers, mosques, gurdwaras, temples, churches and synagogues.  Use your expertise and specific skills to support the local and global community you reside in. And along with that, remember to open up your minds to views and ideas from other colleagues, team members, and even other professions.

Be thankful always -- This one is so important. It is so easy to sideline the very people who are helping you get success while you focus on working towards your goals. I would probably have already starved to death or gone into deep depression without my family and friends. To all those supporting you, remember to always acknowledge their efforts and encouragement.

So to end off, celebrate today and tomorrow when you begin a new chapter in your lives! No matter which path you choose just remember to be humble, be curious, be confident, laugh a lot, enjoy your work, give back and celebrate your amazing achievements.

Thank you and once again, congratulations grads of 2017!

Yetunde Ijamakinwa said on July 10, 2017

This is an awesome message. I am hoping my son gets into FFCA so just decided to check the school website and a few links I come across once in a while.
I saw this link on the front page and decided to check it out. Very inspiring message to the students; and I am sure to any adults present too.
I wish Dr. Nurunissa Raj the very best in her career and life in general. She is an awesome role model to the students and the Alumni association of the school


Sakina said on July 11, 2017

FFCA has turned Nurunnisa in a gem.
She is both a daughter and doctor, we parents are so proud of.
Mustansir and Sakina Raj

Souad said on July 15, 2017

Nur, what an inspiring speech! You always have words of wisdom to share and I'm blessed to have you as a sister(friend). With love always,