The Class of 2021

Grade 12 was not what they imagined: no prom, no varsity teams, no senior trip. But these teens survived the quadmester system and made their way through online school. Here’s how they coped—the good and the bad—and what they’re doing next

Aaliya Qassim, 18

School: The York School
Neighbourhood: North York
What’s next: A gap year followed by economics at Duke University

They call lupus “the disease with a thousand faces” because it manifests so differently in every patient. My childhood was marked by several strange afflictions: inexplicable fainting, skin lesions and hair loss. After years of testing, treatments and extended hospital stays, it finally came back that I had lupus.

The Class of 2021

Even though lupus impacts a significant number of people—with a disproportionately high percentage of them being women of colour—it’s not as well understood as some other chronic illnesses. So, when I was 11, I co-founded the Rally Against Lupus, an annual ping-pong tournament to raise awareness about the condition. I spoke at the event every year, hoping that sharing the details of my life would make the experiences of people living with lupus more comprehensible. Public speaking allowed me to connect with other advocates and see firsthand the power of telling stories that are rarely heard.

A few years later, when visiting Pakistan, I was struck by how many girls were household servants instead of students because they did not have access to safe, sanitary schools. I knew I had to do something. I began using my advocacy network and public speaking skills to raise awareness about girls’ educational inequality, working in partnership with the Citizens Foundation and the Aga Khan Development Network.

The pandemic brought all of that work to a halt. Because I’m immunocompromised, I’ve been fully isolated at home since last March. Even when my friends returned to a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, I continued learning remotely—with my bedroom daylighting as a classroom.

While large public speaking events have been on pause, I’ve joined the Lupus Research Alliance’s Young Leaders’ Board and their “Lift Up Lupus” campaign to continue my advocacy. I was also invited to speak at the organization’s virtual gala alongside Lady Gaga, Mike Bloomberg and Selena Gomez. Sharing my experiences with this larger audience showed me that I could do more than increase awareness or help raise funds to find better treatments and a cure; I could help other isolated people feel less alone.

I’m looking forward to the future. I’m taking a gap year to research how globalization affects pharmaceutical development with a Yale professor. After that, I’ll be heading to Duke University to study economics, which I see as the engine of our modern world. I hope that at Duke, I’ll learn how I can use existing financial structures to make meaningful social change, especially for those whose voices are obscured by illness, oppressed by racism, and silenced beneath stereotypes.

—As told to Haley Steinberg