Calgary: Loonies and Leaders

I was in my hotel at the University of Calgary, asking the man at the reception desk to change a Canadian ten dollar bill for a five and five singles.

“Of course!” he said happily, because in Canada everything is said happily, even when it’s twenty below outside.

He opened the cash register, and a look of consternation fell across his face- the kind of look you get from Canadians when they are unable to quickly fulfill your precise request.

“Hmmm…” he said, peering into cash drawer and tapping it with his fingers. He looked up at me apologetically. “Do you only need loonies? Or would you take toonies?”

I had no idea what he was going on about, but clearly Canadian currency had sneaky weird names. Loonies! Toonies! It was like getting tickled.

“Oh, either one!” I said with a dismissive wave, because I didn’t want to sound like an idiot. He looked relieved, and gave me some shiny coins.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I freakin’ love Canada.

It was my second time to the University of Calgary. They were kind enough to choose my book, Little Princes, as their Common Read this year, even printing their own customized edition and handing out several thousand copies to their students. The first time I came was in September, on their first day of Orientation, when I was greeted by five thousand cheering freshman in a gym.

This time I was there for the Canadian Conference on Student Leadership. There were 230 student leaders from across Canada gathered for the weekend. I was giving the keynote on Saturday morning.

I’ve long since passed the days of getting nervous over public speaking – I genuinely enjoy it. I think (and hope) that people who see me speak can see that I really enjoy it.

Speaking to this group, though, was a special thing for me – I think they had more of an impact on me than I had on them.

Now, before you brush that comment off, I want to tell you what I’m talking about. I’ve always thought it sounded terribly clichéd, when some speaker is on TV speaking at a Feed the Hungry benefit or something and they look at the camera and they say to me “You out there – you’re the real hero!” and I’m in my sweatpants on the couch, tipping the can of Pizzalicious Pringles into my mouth and Pringle dust is going all over my face, and I’m like “Darn tootin’!”

But that’s not the case here. Believe me, when you go out and volunteer – let’s say, in a children’s home in Nepal – it’s easy to be inspired. You’re working directly with the kids. You see the need, you see how little it takes to make a difference. That’s not the challenge.

The challenge is when you’re in university. You’re dealing with exams and the pressures of school, of living away from home for the first time, of maybe working a part time job, of girlfriends and boyfriends and family at home. You’re dealing with trying to figure out what you want to do and what you want to be, and everybody seems to have an opinion on what you should be doing. You’re probably pretty broke, on top of all that.

And yet, you carve the time out of thin air to lead a club or a group. More than that, you decide you want to improve on your skills, you want to be a better leader, because you’re genuinely interested in helping your community.

I never even made it to the first of these levels. Therefore I opened my speech with a disclaimer – I was never a student leader. (See: sweatpants/couch/Pizzalicious-flavored Pringles). So I was already impressed with the group I was addressing, in the same way you’re impressed when you meet somebody who has achieved something you never even thought to aspire to.

I got to talking with those leaders – a lot of them. (I love book signings for that reason.) They were asking great questions about Nepal, about our strategy out there, about the best way they could get involved at their universities. They asked about awareness-raising vs. fundraising, they asked about potentially going out to Nepal to see the need for themselves so they could better understand it.

After my talk and book signing and hanging out with the students, I realized that I was behind. I wasn’t working hard enough. These young men and women were, what, like twenty years old? I didn’t even go out to Nepal until I was twenty nine, and even then I was going to try to impress people.

The University of Calgary is starting to feel like a second home, so I had no hesitation about asking one of the students if I could use the University library for the rest of the day. I’m usually a bit tired after speaking and engaging for a few hours, but I realized that if they weren’t taking breaks, then I wasn’t going to either.

So when I wasn’t speaking, when I wasn’t book signing and meeting students from across Canada, I was in that library, working. I sat beside other students who only lifted their heads from their books to crane their necks or say hi to somebody who had come in, and then went back to it.

When I left at dinner time to head back to my hotel, they were still there, books and laptops open, their headphones sealing them off from the world around them, preparing for lives and careers that they could hardly even envision.

By | 2018-01-19T21:05:00+00:00 November 21st, 2011|24 Comments


  1. Caitlin November 21, 2011 at 8:36 pm - Reply

    Connor, your wit and passion makes everything you write worth the read.

    As a student leader at the U of C, I’m glad to hear you say you feel like the University of Calgary is your second home. We hope you keep coming back!

    Thank you for being amazing, and the one of the best keynote speakers I’ve ever heard.

    • Conor November 21, 2011 at 8:43 pm - Reply

      Thanks Caitlin! Can’t wait to get back there. Maybe U of C can have some summer sessions next time?

      I’ll always come back – such a beautiful place!

  2. Nolan Hill November 21, 2011 at 8:45 pm - Reply

    Glad you enjoyed your second trip to Calgary! (and rest assured that you’re not the first to be confused by our monetary system) The University of Calgary will always welcome you back! I, for one am looking forward to getting involved with NGN on campus in the future! Hopefully we get to see you back at U of C sometime soon!

    • Conor November 21, 2011 at 8:47 pm - Reply

      Right on, Nolan! I love the NGN chapter, exciting stuff! I’m always around to work with you guys!

      • Nirab Pant November 21, 2011 at 10:54 pm - Reply

        Great read Conor! I can definitely appreciate your dilemma with Canadian currency – I was completely bamboozled when I came here!

        Also, I’m sure you give us far too much credit for our studiousness, as headphones and laptops for me are usually indicative of whiling away the hours on youtube or facebook. However, in all fairness, I cannot generalise for the rest of my peers!

        Nolan, if you read this, be on the lookout for an upcoming Nepali dinner with NGN and we’ll definitely be posting pictures soon of the rest of event itself! Thank you again for speaking to us Conor, and for once, I have to say I’m really glad everyone on campus knows quite a bit of Nepal, which means first introductions are always that bit more interesting!

        • Conor November 22, 2011 at 5:03 am - Reply

          Nirab- great to meet you, and let me know how those meetings go, I love to think of the next generation of Nepalese leaders here in North America!

  3. Kelsey Hamill November 21, 2011 at 10:15 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much Conor for coming back and bearing the awful cold weather here in Calgary for a weekend. It was really awesome to have you here and for other students from across the country to receive the opportunity to hear you speak. I thoroughly enjoyed sitting with you during the book signing. I apologize that I did not debrief you during that time on toonies and loonies. Hope that you are able to come back and visit us again, maybe when it’s slightly warmer.

    • Conor November 22, 2011 at 5:04 am - Reply

      Great to see you again Kelsey! As always, you guys were amazing hosts- looking forward to seeing where you end up next year!

    • Pat Malcolm November 28, 2011 at 10:32 am - Reply

      OK, Kelsey, I’ll bite…I’m familiar with loonies from previous Canadian travel, but what the heck are toonies?

  4. Amanda November 21, 2011 at 10:48 pm - Reply

    Hi Conor!

    I want to thank you for allowing the U of C to use your book for our Common Reading Program, and for coming to our school not only once by twice to spread your knowledge and experience. I was lucky enough to be selected as an Orientation Leader and therefore have the opportunity to meet you during O-week (twice, I came back to get a picture), and be sitting in the front section with the First Year Med. students, and I just want to say that hearing you speak about the book was amazing. I mean, reading it was motivating, emotional, and beautiful, but hearing you speak was just awe-inspiring.
    Although I wasn’t able to make it to the CCSL, I do hope you’ll return and bring a little sunshine to our below freezing city.
    Hope to be able to hear you speak again!


    • Conor November 22, 2011 at 5:05 am - Reply

      Ah yes, I have fond memories of the med students in the front row – everyone easily identifiable in their t-shirts! Looking forward to my next visit!

  5. Nasima November 22, 2011 at 7:56 am - Reply

    Hey Conor!
    I was one of the students that stayed after your speech to talk to you and ask you to sign my book. I can honestly say you are truely an inspiration to me. I started reading your book and cannot put it down, even though I have exams and essays to write.
    I thank you for coming to talk to all of us at the University of Calgary and hopefully one day you can come give a little speech at the university that I attend- The University of Guelph- Humber.
    I hope to see you speak again!

    Best regards,


  6. Marcy Prager November 22, 2011 at 8:37 am - Reply

    The commitment of university students is everything you described. But please do not minimize the work that you have done. You have gone to Nepal – OK, maybe originally it was to “impress people,” but you got hooked to the real work – the kids. Most of us do the talking, lead the groups in the U.S., and yes, we are real and we care. But few actually go and live and work with and for the kids who need the help the most. Your life was changed by doing the real work that most people cannot do and would love to do. You walk the walk. During the Global on-line Collaborative led by Lucy Gray and Steve Hargadon, I met others like you who walk the walk. I was inspired. You are the true heros.

    • Conor November 26, 2011 at 7:18 am - Reply

      Hi Marcy – that Global on-line Collaborative sounds great- thanks for drawing my attention to it, and for the kind words!

    • Alexey May 22, 2012 at 9:37 pm - Reply

      / Kaela, We are not planning on selinlg copies of the movie. It will be available online on Vimeo and YouTube. If for some reason we do sell copies we will let you know, but if we do all proceeds will more than likely go to TBI research or something of that nature.[]

  7. Lucy November 23, 2011 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    Connor –

    I have to agree with the above comment from Marcy. It’s people like yourself who make us University and High School kids believe we can make a difference, that any ordinary person can change the world. Regardless of the reason that started it all, you are a person to whom I look up to because I can relate to your story. You and other like you give me and my peers the initiative and passion to continue to make change and to work our hardest when doing so. You are the reason that the the world will change.

    • Conor November 26, 2011 at 7:19 am - Reply

      Thanks Lucy! It was really great meeting you guys, both university and high school- so inspiring!

  8. Cristel November 25, 2011 at 11:27 pm - Reply

    One of the things we learned at the conference is that we should never underestimate ourselves and our accomplishments. I felt my heart sink when I read “I’m not working hard enough”. But it’s really such an honor to see how us, a group of 20 something year olds who presumably hold the world’s weight on their shoulders, can impact someone like you. You are one of the reasons why kids like us want to keep going and trying harder. It’s because we see the value in your inspiring work.

    Thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to come and share your incredible story with us.

    P.S: I will be using some of quotes from your talk in a workshop I’m preparing on “Impact and Inspiration”.

    The girl that forgot her book, but got a great memorable picture with you (I’m assuming I was the only one hehe)

    • Conor November 26, 2011 at 7:21 am - Reply

      Hi Cristel-
      You guys ARE doing an amazing job. And I’ve always found that no matter how busy I am, I can work harder. Maybe that means smarter, or more efficiently – it definitely does not mean to kill yourself. But we’re going to look back and judge ourselves each year for how we did, and I believe that you guys are going to be exceptionally proud. You can work harder – you haven’t yet realized your potential!

  9. Joyce March 2, 2012 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    Wow, you were in Calgary? (close to my hometown! Though I’ve been living abroad for a few years now.) I followed your blog(s) on and off since the bootsnall Nepal days during my cubicle dwelling days, so it’s really exciting to hear the wide effect of your charity! Definitely I was inspired by your blog, at least in part, to travel for a year, to now living abroad. I agree with others that you shouldn’t minimize what you’ve done, especially when you’ve been a huge inspiration to others! 🙂

  10. Berenice July 25, 2014 at 1:00 am - Reply

    Sweet blog! I found it while browsing on Yahoo News.

    Do you have any tips on how to get listed in Yahoo News?
    I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there!
    Many thanks

  11. personal laptop March 22, 2016 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    Conor Grennan » Calgary: Loonies and Leaders is a wonderful piece of writing, I’m discussing with my buddies.

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