‘What If’ Scholarship Supports Young Women Pursuing Dream Careers

Alumni Success

February 4, 2022

As a registered psychotherapist with a thriving private practice, Juliann Rasanayagam oftentimes finds herself counselling young female clients grappling with ‘What If’ questions about the pursuit of their dream careers. 

Psychotherapist Juliann Rasanayagam
Juliann Rasanayagam

What if I follow my heart? What if this is what I’m meant to do? What if I take the chance? What if I succeed? What if I can’t make a difference? What if I fail?

“I’ve met with so many individuals, particularly young women, who have felt they were at this crossroads when it came to choosing a career,” said the Scarborough, Ontario native, who graduated from Yorkville University’s Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology program in 2016. 

“On the one hand, they’re being encouraged to pick a career that’s very stable and predictable financially…but, they also have this overwhelming passion or drive that is steering them toward a much more ‘non-traditional’ career path.” 

Inspired by those conversations, Rasanayagam decided to create the What If Scholarship – a $3,000 bursary initiated to help young women who have chosen to embark on a journey on the road less travelled; who have asked all those ‘what if’ questions, identified all the obstacles, and bravely decided to chase their dreams, anyway.

What If Scholarship program flyer

Launched over the summer through her practice, Empathic Counselling Centre, the What If Scholarship sought applications from young women living and studying in Scarborough. 

Originally a self-funded venture, Rasanayagam said what started out as a single scholarship of $3,000 quickly doubled when she was approached by an anonymous donor, who offered a matching a donation. 

“It started off with me just personally funding it, but then, after I started advertising it a bit more, it got out in the community and caught the attention of someone in Scarborough who loved the idea and gave us a very generous donation,” she said. 

“This individual matched the original $3,000, so we were able to give the scholarship to two individuals instead of just one.” 

And that, Rasanayagam said, turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events in more ways than just one – especially given the quality of the 50 applications submitted for the scholarship. 

“The applications that came in were so phenomenal, I had come up with a grading schema, just so I could narrow it down to two winners. Even then, I fell into trap where the applications were just so amazing, I was only able to narrow it down to nine people,” Rasanayagam said, noting that, from there, she set up virtual meetings with each of the remaining finalists to learn more about them. 

“Through our quick 15-minute conversations, I got to learn about their journeys and get to know each of them outside of what they’d written on paper…I learned so much.” 

In the end, Mariah Paul and Sania Khan emerged as the inaugural winners of the What If Scholarship. The commonality between both winners, Rasanayagam said, was that neither listened to anyone saying ‘no’ to them in their pursuit of their dream careers – for Paul, as a dancer and early childhood educator, and for Khan, as an aspiring filmmaker. 

Mariah Paul, What If Scholarship winner
Mariah Paul

“Throughout the application process, Mariah and Sania showed the perfect combination of enthusiasm, drive and resilience it takes to pursue a career in a non-traditional field,” she said.

“They are both very much, ‘You know what? If this door is closed, I’m just going to carve my own path.’ They were able to find ways to create opportunities for themselves – and their stories were just amazing.”

For Paul, who was introduced to dance at a young age, the major barrier she had to overcome passion was a financial one. 

“Mariah knew the moment she first stepped on a stage that that was where she wanted to be, that dance was her calling – but dance is very expensive,” Rasanayagam said. 

“She was able to find creative ways to remain involved in dance, though. She worked hard to earn her lessons, and didn’t really let finances be an obstacle for her.” 

Sania Khan, What If Scholarship winner
Sania Khan

With Khan, for whom filmmaking is a second career, the major barrier to making their dreams come true was a lack of industry connections.  

“Because it’s a brand-new career, Sania has no built-in network, very little experience, very little schooling,” Rasanayagam said. 

“So, when (they) did step into this career, Sania felt (they) really didn’t have anywhere to go or any opportunities to seize. So, (they) ended up creating (their) own production company, and now (they’re) giving opportunities to women of colour and people from other marginalized communities – and I thought that was amazing.” 

With the first edition of the What If Scholarship such a sparkling success, Rasanayagam is now looking forward to making it an annual one in order to support even more young women in Scarborough making their dreams a reality. 

“To me, this whole process was a very eye-opening one, discovering just how much hidden talent we have in such a small community. My heart was so full, but at the same time it was so heartbreaking to have to choose just two winners, because everyone was so phenomenal in their own right,” she said. 

“I’m hoping to start it up again this year, but this time with crowdsourcing so that we can provide opportunities for even more young women. It’s my way of giving back to a community I love so much.”