TORONTO — Three brilliant young Canadians admit to finding themselves momentarily dumbstruck when meeting the Queen earlier this week.
Aditya Mohan, Ishita Aggarwal and Midia Shikh Hassan say their royal encounter is just sinking in now that they’ve returned from a 10-day trip to London where they accepted a Queen’s Young Leaders award, for people aged 18 to 29 doing exceptional work across the Commonwealth.
Their all-expenses-paid tour included a series of workshops and a visit to nearby Cambridge University and culminated in a glitzy awards ceremony Tuesday at Buckingham Palace presided over by Her Majesty.
Mohan says that when the Queen asked him what he did, he “blanked.” It took a moment for the 21-year-old to remember that he’s been researching cancer immunotherapy since he was 15.
“There’s so much going on — right in front of you is the Queen, behind you is David Beckham and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex,” says Mohan, who has drawn a fair share of attention himself for the multiple science prizes he’s won, including the title of Canada’s biogenius of 2015.
“It was just very, very surreal.”
Award-winners got to mingle with the royals and other dignitaries at a reception that followed, he continues. Mohan, who was born in New Jersey and grew up in Ottawa, was impressed by the concerted effort notables including Prince Harry and Meghan made to greet as many people as possible.
“They seemed to have a genuine interest in our work and it was better than anything I could have imagined, to be able to actually have a conversation with people who you read about in newspapers — David Beckham for example, (is someone) I’ve known since childhood. Never, never, never did I ever imagine that I’d be able to actually talk to him. And same thing with the Queen.”
The trio was among roughly 60 people honoured in the fourth and final year of the awards program.
The Toronto-based Aggarwal, honoured for launching a non-profit group that hosts free prenatal workshops for low-income and homeless pregnant women, says they learned before the ceremony that previous winners had forgotten their own names in front of the Queen.
“It really does happen,” says the 25-year-old, set to enter a master of public health program at Western University in September.
“She is a very powerful woman and you feel that standing in front of her. And I have to say she has very kind eyes so I think for me, it took me a second to actually process the questions she was asking me before I responded. But she was very patient and very gracious.”
The Ottawa-based Shikh Hassan, recognized for launching a program that aims to help refugees start their own businesses and integrate into the community, admits that “oddly enough, I do not remember what happened.”
“But I do remember everything she told me exactly,” adds the accomplished 26-year-old, who also co-founded a tech startup that aims to make affordable 3D-printed prosthetic limbs for war amputees.
“I don’t know if I curtsied or bowed, or what I was supposed to do or not, but I do know for a fact that she did talk to me. She handed me the medal, all went well.”
Shikh Hassan is no stranger to the spotlight.
Back in April, the chemical engineering graduate was among a delegation of youth leaders to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in which she first met Prince Harry and Meghan.
But she says she and her similarly accomplished peers were wowed by their whirlwind adventure in London.
“There were so many emotions going on at that time, many people (had) tears, some were laughing, some were dancing, I was smiling,” says Shikh Hassan.
“The whole thing was very overwhelming in a good way. But once the ceremony was done I felt like, ‘Oh my God, I can relax now. My mission has been accomplished on this trip.'”
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press