Student of the Year: Tariq Mekkaoui
The state of Michigan enacted a law requiring public high schools to give students CPR and automated external defibrillator, or A.E.D. training before they graduate, starting with the 2017-2018 school year. But LSA junior Tariq Mekkaoui is going one step further.
Mekkaoui views the state’s actions as a step in the right direction but knows they are missing an essential component: Mental health. He integrates this critical ingredient into Heal-Move-Shift, a nonprofit he co-founded in December 2017 that strives to teach students the three tenets of health: cardiovascular, mental and nutritional.
As an English and biomolecular science double major and an aspiring physician, Mekkaoui already had roots in the health science field. But a poorly-handled mental health incident involving a student in his hometown of Dearborn Heights is what actually sparked him to create Heal-Move-Shift.
“I was so upset, because I looked back at my own couple years in that community, and I was like, ‘No one spoke to me about mental health,’” Mekkaoui said. “No one spoke to me about how nutritional health can build on my mental health, or even cardiovascular health.”
Because of the incident, Mekkaoui realized it was time for change. With Heal-Move-Shift, he started working at Central Academy, a local Ann Arbor high school with a student body largely from immigrant countries. Mekkaoui, who is part Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian, and his co-founder Ahmad Hider, a University of Michigan alum, wanted to focus particularly on this demographic group.
“We’re both from immigrant … populations,” Mekkaoui said. “So, we wanted to heal that community. We really wanted to shift the stigma away from mental health and these other health aspects and then move the conversation the correct way.”
Every Friday afternoon, when most students check out and prepare for the weekend, Mekkaoui heads to Central Academy to lead Heal-Move-Shift seminars for students. The programs range from CPR training to yoga lessons and meditation to discussions related to mental health. Students attend voluntarily, and Mekkaoui is pleased with the turnout.
“They’re all high-achieving students,” Mekkaoui said. “They’re phenomenal, and I love working with them. I honestly feel better when I go and teach these seminars, and I go ahead and relate to these students.”
With the guidance of the University’s Barger Leadership Institute, which Mekkaoui managed to get useful contacts and resources to help grow the nonprofit. Heal-Move-Shift earned a $10,000 grant from the institute, which will help it potentially expand into four high schools next year.
“We’ve moved fast, and we’re very proud of what we’ve done,” Mekkaoui said. “But also, it’s so important to pause and reflect and make sure that we’re doing this effectively and intentionally.”
Mekkaoui has big plans for the future. He hopes that one day, all high schools will offer mental health seminars for students since he feels it’s imperative for them to learn about mental health before graduating and being independent.
He also has goals for himself. Mekkaoui dreams of going to medical school, but he’s fine putting this off until later to focus on the organization. In fact, he plans to take a gap year after graduating to focus all his energy on Heal-Move-Shift.
“I feel like I’m making a difference, and they’re understanding these high-level concepts without being forced to learn it,” Mekkaoui said. “It’s an easy introduction and they can carry this on with the rest of their lives. So, this is the work I want to do and I feel good doing it.”