First ‘Wonder Grant’ from the Shawn Mendes Foundation goes to a UAlbany senior

Fanta Ballo speaks onstage at a UAlbany event in February 2020.
Fanta Ballo speaks onstage in the Performing Arts Center at a UAlbany event in February 2020.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Jan. 26, 2021) — A 19-year-old UAlbany senior is the first recipient of a “Wonder Grant” from a foundation dedicated to supporting those it describes as “creative students who are actively working to change the world with their innovative ideas.”

Fanta Ballo, an Economics major scheduled to graduate this May, is receiving her award from recording star Shawn Mendes’ year-old Shawn Mendes Foundation, as announced on Dec. 15. Four more recipients are to be named this year, with monetary prizes that will directly contribute to the launching or completion of their “passion projects,” according to the Foundation,

In the case of Ballo, that project is a book of poetry. “The book is titled For All the Things I Never Got to Say, and it tackles topics from love, heartbreak, family, mental health, homophobia and more,” she said. “I hope that when readers pick it up, they can relate to at least one poem or resonate with one story.”

The Harlem native’s achievements include being a 2018 commencement speaker at Bard College at Simon's Rock, where she earned her associate's degree at 17. She also created a spoken word video on how her life proves that, despite what she had been taught, her blackness cannot limit her goals and achievements. It was this video that caught the attention of Mendes, and his award to her then fascinated People magazine, which devoted an article to Ballo in its Dec. 17 edition.
"I stumbled across Fanta's video online and was blown away," Mendes told 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."

Ballo said of the People article, “it feels amazing. It’s humbling to know that now, when you search my name up, articles come up. As a result of this feature, I have been contacted by so many old friends, teachers and family members whom I haven’t seen or talked to in a while, and it’s a good feeling.”

She said the Mendes Foundation award will afford her more flexibility to execute her ideas and reach a wider audience, a goal she considered when choosing economics as a major field upon entering UAlbany as a junior in 2019. “I chose economics as my major because I was eager to learn the way money and other scarce resources are distributed,” said Ballo.

“I want to use my degree to educate those in my Harlem community about financial literacy and help them figure out ways to become financially free. Growing up, I didn’t have much financial knowledge and that affected the way I viewed and utilized my money. I don’t want the same thing to happen with other kids that come after me. I want to give them that chance early to become financially literate.”

A graduate at age 15 of Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School, Ballo said she also seeks to inspire Harlem youth to contribute to the arts in whatever creative ways they can. “The youth is our future,” she told People, “and I believe we have to invest in them every step of the way.”

Upon graduation, Ballo said she will take a position as personal banker/financial wellness consultant at KeyBank, while she continues her “writing, performing and advocating for the youth.”