By Ainslie Coghill
In the mid 90s, around the time the Windows 95 operating system hit the market, high school student Rohit Saxena stood face to face with Bill Gates and handed him a paper copy of his resume.
Gates was in Ottawa to meet with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and made a special trip to Carleton University to check out the Virtual Ventures summer camp. Rohit* was a camp volunteer at the time.
It sticks out as one of his most memorable moments with the organization.
“I remember feeling really proud of the program and team – like ‘we made it’,” he says. “I think that’s when I realized that if you do good work like this, and with the right mission at heart, the world will take notice.”
Before he was a volunteer, Rohit was one of VV’s first crop of high school aged campers.
The organization is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and Rohit is a big part of its story.
“My mom read a newspaper article about it and she was impressed with what she saw and how it stacked up to my interests,” he says. “I remember not wanting the week [of camp] to end, and wishing there was a way to stay involved and keep learning.”
Rohit pitched the idea of becoming VV’s first volunteer to camp organizers, and they were open to giving it a chance. Volunteers would allow for the program to expand their offerings and capacity. Next, he moved on to a position as volunteer coordinator, overseeing fellow high school students, and growing the volunteer base from five to forty volunteers over a three year period.
“It meant a lot to be taken seriously by the university staff I worked with,” says Rohit, who went on to obtain a computer systems engineering degree from Carleton University.
He was actively involved in the Carleton engineering community during his years as an undergraduate student, participating in the Carleton Student Engineering Society (CSES) and organizing countless social events and activities. Rohit set the bar so high with his contributions that CSES named an award after him, presented annually to a graduating student whose vision and leadership throughout their undergraduate degree made a significant impact on CSES’ endeavours.
He is still in touch with dozens of volunteers and staff from his days with VV, and says he’s impressed to see where many of them have ended up. Rohit is a Senior Client Success Manager Specialist with healthcare software company Phreesia. Six of his fellow employees have connections to VV.
Rohit says he credits VV with teaching him at a young age that he should follow his heart towards the intrinsic motivation of volunteer work. Recently, he was given a Mayor’s City Builder award from the City of Ottawa – in part for volunteering with the Ottawa Humane Society (OHS). He is the lead photographer for OHS, providing them with event and commercial photography, and taking animal portraits that increase the chances of pets in need finding homes through adoption.
“I’m fortunate to have the privilege and resources to do something that helps,” he says.
This summer, Rohit’s VV story will come full circle, in a way. He hasn’t enrolled himself in camp, but his six year old son, Navin, will be joining VV’s engineering camp for the first time.
“We wanted him in the camp as soon as possible,” he says. “We already hear from his teachers that he is very curious, precocious, and learns at an impressive clip. I hope he learns the technical skills, and maybe more than that, I hope he learns how to leverage those skills to make a positive difference for people and the world.”
Navin, who will be taking part in the kindergarten-level engineering camp, isn’t the only “second generation” VV camper. For instance, the organization’s co-founder Charlie Younghusband’s two children have now attended two summers in a row.
Much has changed for VV since 1994 when Rohit first attended camp. For one, the programming has expanded to serve youth from ages 4-18, and even more recently, there are new outreach efforts to connect with historically underserved youth and communities.
“This is the beating heart that makes VV special,” says Rohit. “A big tent, welcome to all, especially those who need it and may not have obvious access to it, either because of resources or pre-conceived attitudes and notions,” he adds.
“There was a letter to the editor in the Citizen recently about the impact of the Actua and VV InStem [Indigenous Land Based STEM Camp] that I have thought about a lot in the days since reading it,” he says. “Reaching out to girls as well as Indigenous communities is really forward-thinking and important – and impacts how I think about my work now.”
Rohit hopes that VV will continue to broaden their offerings across Carleton engineering’s disciplines, with more emphasis on environmental engineering for youth.
“It’s clear that this is a problem domain that we will all have to come to terms with. Hopefully the next VV generation can accomplish what my generation could not – we owe it to them to try and prepare them,” he says.
For now, it is time to celebrate VV’s first quarter century of accomplishments and impact.
On Saturday, July 27 from 11AM to 2PM, former and present VV staff and volunteers, past and present campers and supporters are invited to join the 25th anniversary celebrations at Alumni Park at Carleton University. More details and registration can be found here.
*Rohit preferred to be called by his first name for this story
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