Maria Keselj

Maria Keselj’s wisdom, confidence, and accomplishment belies her 17 years. The grade-12 student, enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program, is her student council’s outreach coordinator, organizing fundraisers and volunteer opportunities. She edits her high-school newspaper, founded the debating club, plays basketball and rugby, coaches children’s basketball, studies advanced piano, and volunteers with Food Nova Scotia and the IWK.

Maria loves politics and has worked with the Liberal party, specifically on policy. “I always wanted to change things. Only recently did I realize doing that through a political platform is the best way to have your voice heard.” She’s concerned with environmental issues, racial and gender equality, and mental health, with plans to start a federal-riding youth council to encourage youth participation. Passionate about more women in politics, she organized a non-partisan conference with all major parties.

People who immigrate generally had to work harder to get jobs and see the value of education, and they want that for their kids.

Maria believes this passion came partly from her parents who immigrated to Canada in 1994 having left war-torn Sarajevo, now in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “I think my parents influenced me but they didn’t know they did. They would always discuss politics and I would see how it could affect someone’s life,” she explains. “Their lives are uprooted because of bad politics. They also see immigration and how the program let them immigrate here.”

Her father, Vlado, had a friend in Winnipeg he knew from the International Math Olympiad, so they settled there, eventually moving to Waterloo where he completed his Master’s and Ph.D. They moved to Bedford in 2002. Vlado is a computer science professor at Dalhousie and Maria’s mother, Tanja, is a senior systems analyst with the Nova Scotia Health Authority. “People who immigrate generally had to work harder to get jobs and see the value of education, and they want that for their kids,” says Maria, the second of four kids; an older brother works in San Francisco with Google.

She recalls, as a child, hearing people mock her parents’ accent. “People assume a lower intelligence level when they hear an accent and treat them a bit condescendingly.” Because of her last name she feels she must prove her capabilities. But growing up is also a “cool mixture” of both cultures, including traditional foods, dance, music, and celebrations of Orthodox holidays. Serbo-Croatian was her first language. “I was completely fluent. When we visit with my grandparents, it comes back.”

The family returns to Sarajevo frequently. “Canadians are so nice that I’m saying sorry all the time and thank you, and then I get looked at really weird, or I’m opening the door and they’re thinking what are you doing.” She loves the culture of hospitality. “No one leaves the house hungry. I like that warm familiarity and camaraderie that comes with it.” She’s also fascinated by the history. “We’re Bosnian Serbs; there have been so many struggles, but I hear the history and it’s inspiring. They hid in the mountains during the Ottomans and preserved their religion. That perseverance really spoke to me.”

Maria graduates this spring, planning to study physics or economics, eventually going into academia and then, unsurprisingly, politics. A name to remember.