2020 has been defined by a disproportionate succession of small changes. Changes in habit, changes to routine, changes to how we function within our everyday lives. More significantly, 2020 has seen movement towards a deepening sense of equality.

Miltonian teen Zainab Azim holds this cause close to her heart. In 2020 she was selected to participate in the United Nations Space4Women Network Mentor program. This mentorship position will allow her to promote STEM and gender equality on a global level.

In September, Azim turned 18 and entered her first year of post-secondary education at the University of Toronto. There she begins her journey toward a double major in neuroscience and public policy, with a minor in astrophysics. Her love for space began at a young age and was spurred on when her parents purchased her and her younger brother future tickets on the Virgin Galactic – the world’s first commercial spaceline. Azim is modest about this grand gesture, but also recognizes the important role it has played as a catalyst in her life, and the foresight of her parents.

For this reason, the UN Space4Women Network Mentor website describes Azim as the “Youngest Member of Virgin Galactic’s Future Astronaut Program.” But Zainab’s work extends far beyond this narrative. The teen has spent the last few years speaking at conferences worldwide, including one in Italy, where she connected with the key note speaker and was encouraged to apply to the Network Mentor program. 

Azim, whose inspiration began with the career of Roberta Bondar, is one of the youngest Mentors but is ready to fully embrace the role. For her this means partnering up with mentors from all over the globe to create education opportunities on STEM, coding and astronomy for women, women of colour, and young girls. She hopes to pay special attention to girls who live in underprivileged areas, or who don’t have the opportunity to attend school at all. In a recent Global News MSN interview online, Zainab discussed her mission: “I feel this weight of responsibility to represent the voices of young people. Representation really matters because it creates accessibility for different communities to have perspectives and voices. Young people, the next generation, and minorities like women, women of colour, and lower economic class people may not reap the benefits and the fruits of progress that comes with space exploration.” One way Azim feels this can be rectified is for large corporations to reinvest in communities.

With the pandemic still occurring, and her space flight currently postponed, Zainab has time to focus on these efforts. When the time arrives to board the Virgin Galactic, she is looking forward to the emotional, intellectual and spiritual perspective shift that may occur. “For anyone who is young, or old, it’s a very exciting opportunity. I think as I get older it also becomes a little more nerve-wracking as I begin to comprehend the full aspect of that experience.”

Azim recognizes the expansive issues we face on earth – including the pandemic, climate change, natural disasters, poverty, and hunger. She doesn’t believe space exploration should be funded at the expense of education, healthcare and housing needs. However, she reminds us that “we are a part of space…we’re not distinct from it. We are part of the universe, so our problems are the universe’s problems. And the universe’s problems are our problems.”

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