Shawn Mendes Foundation Awards First Wonder Grant to Change Maker Fanta Ballo: 'It's Unreal!'
"The youth is our future, and I believe we have to invest in them every step of the way," the scholar tells PEOPLE
Shawn Mendes is giving back.
On Tuesday, it was announced that the "Wonder" singer — and the Shawn Mendes Foundation — have teamed up with Google to award the first set of Wonder Grants to a group of creative students who are actively working to change the world with their innovative ideas.
The monetary prizes will directly contribute to the launching or completion of each recipient's passion projects, which stem from various subject areas including music, film, education, science, technology and the environment.
Fanta Ballo — an 18-year-old college senior and social activism poet — is the lucky first Wonder Grant awardee. Ballo is gearing up to complete her undergraduate studies and obtain her bachelor's degree in economics at the University of Albany. Previously, she was the commencement speaker at Bard College at Simon's Rock, where she earned her associate's degree in liberal arts. Speaking exclusively with PEOPLE, the Harlem, New York native opened up about what it means to receive the recognition from Mendes, 22, his foundation and Google.
"I stumbled across Fanta's video online and was blown away," Mendes tells PEOPLE. "She was looking for support to finish her book and I wanted to do anything I could through my foundation to help get that done. I am so grateful to get to support amazing change-makers like Fanta, and can't wait to support more [amazing young people] with Wonder Grants in 2021."
Ballo speaks with PEOPLE in a series of questions regarding her latest achievement.
How does it feel to be named a change maker by Shawn Mendes, the Shawn Mendes Foundation and Google — and how will this grant and the technology given by Google directly impact your idea to change the world?
Fanta: It feels unreal! It started as poetry for me and it slowly became a movement when I realized the way my words impacted people. So, with this grant and the support from Shawn Mendes and Google, I'll have more flexibility to execute my ideas, while at the same time reaching a wider audience.
What long-term goal did you have in mind when you chose to major in economics after earning your associate's degree?
Fanta: Growing up, I learned little to nothing about financial literacy and that affected the way I viewed money. I majored in economics because I wanted to eventually come back to my neighborhood and educate young kids, like me, on how they can become financially literate.
When you gave your commencement speech after earning your associate's degree, did you ever imagine that you would go on to become one of the first students to receive this grant?
Fanta: I never in a million years would have thought I would be receiving a grant from anyone, let alone, the Shawn Mendes Foundation. But, I am grateful for this opportunity because it gives young kids hope [and] lets them know that even if you feel like no one's watching, there are people in the background rooting for you.
What causes mean the most to you as an artist and activist in Harlem? I know the culture in Harlem is incredible when it comes to the arts.
Fanta: It will have to be gentrification and the preservation of our art and culture. I believe it's becoming harder and harder to see the vibrant Harlem culture because of gentrification. I want to do my part to keep inspiring the youth to contribute to the arts in whichever creative way they can because the youth is our future, and I believe we have to invest in them every step of the way.
How does Shawn Mendes inspire you?
Fanta: Shawn inspires me because of his humility. He shows me that no matter how much fame and notoriety you have, you can still have a good heart. He has impacted so many people, just by his music, and now he's taking it a step further by giving these grants to young change-makers. He finds joy in giving back, and when I am able to, I would love to pay it forward and do the same.
The remaining four, initial grantees will be highlighted on the Shawn Mendes Foundation's Instagram next year.
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