Nova Scotia

Orphaned at 14, this Acadia student just landed a prestigious $45K scholarship

Alex Dulay's upbringing included having her mom diagnosed with cancer and losing both parents by the time she was 14. "I kind of use that as my motivation to just keep on living, just making them proud," says the 21-year-old university student.

'I kind of use that as my motivation to just keep on living, just making them proud,' says Alex Dulay, 21

A young woman with red lipstick who is wearing white pants and a white coat looks at the camera.
Alex Dulay, 21, grew up in the Philippines, but immigrated to Nova Scotia at 16. She's wrapping up her third year of studies at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. (John Pollack/Clothesline Media)

Acadia University student Alex Dulay's foray into entrepreneurship came under the most dire of circumstances.

When Dulay was 10, her mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Needing money to pay for treatments, Dulay, who is originally from the Philippines, started making crafts that a brother sold on Facebook, which helped pay for some chemotherapy treatments.

But Dulay's mother died of cancer two years later. That same year, one of Dulay's brothers died in a car accident. And, at 14, her father died because of health issues.

"Over the years, I kind of use that as my motivation to just keep on living, just making them proud," said Dulay, 21.

Now living in Nova Scotia, Dulay is one of this year's eight recipients of the Frank H. Sobey Awards for Excellence in Business Studies, a $45,000 scholarship given to a select group of students studying business at Atlantic Canadian universities.

A young girl is shown with her mother, who is in a hospital bed.
Dulay, then 11, is shown with her mother in a 2014 photo. (Alex Dulay)

"Looking back into everything that has happened in my life and everything that I've been through, it was just such a surreal moment," said Dulay. "Twelve-year-old me would never even realize that I'm capable of doing, accomplishing something like this."

Looking back on the Facebook rainbow loom business, Dulay said the experience gave her some optimism, teaching her that there are many good people in the world. While there was no set price for the product, she said people often were generous knowing how the money was to be spent.

Five rainbow looms are shown on a windowledge.
These are some of the rainbow looms Dulay made to raise money to pay for her mother's chemotherapy. (Alex Dulay)

After the death of Dulay's dad, she began living with an aunt in Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

At 16, she and her sister immigrated to Canada to live with another aunt who had already settled in the tiny francophone community of Meteghan in southwestern Nova Scotia.

Dulay is wrapping up her third year at Acadia, where she is pursuing a bachelor of business administration, majoring in entrepreneurship and innovation.

Touching Hearts

She's also working on a startup called Touching Hearts, which aims to provide fair wages for Asian artisans. Their products will be shipped to Canada and sold through a website here. As well, 50 per cent of the profits will go back to the people who made the products, said Dulay.

The name of the business is inspired by a quote Dulay's mom was fond of.

"Some say life is too short, others say it's too long. I know nothing, but it does make sense if we touch the hearts of others while it lasts," said Dulay.

This quote fuels Dulay.

She also said it speaks to who her mom, who was a school principal, was as a person. Dulay said she still receives messages from former students talking about the positive impact her mom had on their lives.

Touching Hearts is one way Dulay aims to give back. She also has plans to start a business that builds affordable housing in Canada and uses some of the profits to build housing in the Philippines for families in need.

After her business studies, Dulay plans to study architecture. Two years of undergraduate studies are needed for architecture, which is why she's in business administration.

Busy volunteer

At Acadia, Dulay volunteers with a club that promotes mental health services to students. She's also creating a mural for an on-campus entrepreneurship organization and is the incoming president of Enactus Acadia, which promotes social entrepreneurship in the community.

Dulay was urged by a friend to apply for the Sobey scholarship. That friend, Kirsten Lawrence, won the scholarship a year ago.

Lawrence said Dulay is using entrepreneurship to create positive social change.

'Always has a positive outlook,' says friend

"Alex is someone who is extremely determined, which is clear in how she has overcome many obstacles in her life," Lawrence wrote in an email to CBC News.

"She always has a positive outlook on life, she cares a lot about her friends and family, and is a supportive leader to her peers."

Dulay estimates it took her four months to apply for the Sobey scholarship because she kept making changes to it. Part of the application required detailing her childhood. The process was therapeutic for her, but winning unlocked something else.

"Winning that award was definitely, like, the moment that I realized that I am on the right track with my life," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Woodbury is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia's digital team. He can be reached at richard.woodbury@cbc.ca.

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