‘Believe in yourself and you’ll be unstoppable.’ Nisha Nijjar, 20, can’t remember when or where she first heard those words, but they have played a big part in taking her from Terrace to South Africa and back. They helped her win the title of Miss Northern BC and start her own organization. Nijjar, they have become words to live by.
Her story starts at Clarence Michiel Elementary, where she began learning about different cultures. At the age of 10, she started organizing events at school honouring her cultural background, like a celebration of Vasaikhi, an ancient harvest festival in the Punjab region of India.
Nijjar was involved in multiple sports during her years at Skeena Middle School and Caledonia Secondary. She played soccer and basketball and won medals with the Terrace Figure Skating Club.
At the age of 16, she began thinking about starting an organization. Two months later, the Her Voice Organization was born with the mission to empower and educate young girls.
“I just thought about it one day and I initiated it and went straight to Skeena Diversity,” said Nijjar of a local multicultural organization.
From there she collaborated with the Terrace Women’s Centre and Women and Development on a 2016 event where women and girls could come share their thoughts on equality issues in Terrace, and how to improve those issues.
The following year, the partnership hosted a second event focusing on media and women. Young girls in Terrace were given the opportunity to make their own commercials and portray media from their perspective.
Nijjar volunteered at Umzabalazo Primary School in Khula Village, South Africa for two weeks last summer with Volunteer Eco Students Abroad, a for-profit organization that offers students the opportunity to do volunteer work and adventure tourism in a variety of countries.
“It was an eye opening experience for sure, truly humbling. I’ve always wanted to volunteer, said Nijjar. “It helped me get out of my bubble, it helped me come out a bit and do something for these people.”
When she returned home, Nijjar was left feeling like two weeks was not enough time and that there was unfinished business at the school.
When she got back to B.C., she participated in the Miss BC pageant last year. The long process of paperwork and multiple rounds of selection were worth it – she came out with the title of Miss Northern British Columbia.
“It was my first pageant so it was definitely an interesting experience,” she said.
“I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into, and I’ve never considered pageants something that I would do, but throughout the weekend just learning about these empowering young girls and women from across B.C. and for it to give me a platform to carry out my project and do what I need to do give back to the community, it meant a lot, it gave me a platform.”
Nijjar said that the pageant was important to her because it allowed her to show her confidence and portray herself how she wanted. It also gives girls the chance to follow through on different projects.
Now, Her Voice is an international partner of the Umzabalazo Primary School.
Her Voice is in the process of being registered as a non-profit in Canada which will open up new funding opportunities and raise its profile.
Being back in Canada makes it more difficult to be involved at a distance with the school in South Africa, but Nijjar is making it happen.
“You really connect with the people that you meet across the community, especially the kids. The orphanage and the school take you in as their own and they look up to you, so being away from that is a little bit harder to work with, especially trying to bring myself into their culture and appropriately portray education to them makes it a bit of a struggle,” she said.
“I have people in Africa that I coordinate with and I’m constantly updated about the issues and things at the school, what is exactly needed, so I can continuously update what my organization is allocating funds to.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation more difficult. Fundraising events had to be cancelled, lowering the funds Nijjar had expected for Her Voice. However, her and her coordinators in South Africa started taking online donations to soften the blow.
On the ground, the COVID-19 situation in South Africa is constantly evolving.
“It’s quite a poor area and they don’t have the resources necessarily for complete safety and health concern around COVID so the children at the orphanage and the school, they are trying to isolate themselves but it’s hard for them to do so without resources,” said Nijjar.
On June 14, 2020 the South African Department of Health reported just over 70,000 COVID-19 cases with 1,480 deaths. The World Health Organization reported on June 11 that South Africa accounts for around a quarter of Africa’s total cases. The South Africa Centre of Excellence in Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis expects that cases will not peak until August.
Nijjar attends the University of Northern British Columbia and this fall will start the third year toward a degree in accounting and human resource management. She sees herself practicing corporate law in southern B.C. and partnering Her Voice with a school in India.
“For me, I’ve had all the support in the world through my entire life, my family has been fully supportive of everything I do, I just have a very good support system around me,” said Nijjar.
“I also learned that if I see something I want to get done I need to be the one to come forward just like with the organization, I knew that I had to take the initiative to come forward otherwise nothing is going to be done, so as long as I have it in me to do something and I am given the opportunity to do it I know I can succeed.”
But no matter what she does or where she goes, the phrase ‘believe in yourself and you will be unstoppable’ and her hometown of Terrace will always be close to her heart.
“Terrace is always the place that’s home to me and its somewhere I’ll always continue to go back to, no matter where I end up.”