Black Grad celebrates accomplishment, and resilience

Students, friends and family come together in person to highlight achievement in trying times
Celebrating Black Grad 2022Kojo Chang-Jones / Black Students Network

Black members of McGill’s Class of 2022 celebrated the completion of their degrees at the fourth annual Black Grad event on Sunday, May 1 at the Omni Hotel in downtown Montreal. For the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, graduating students were able to mark the event with their friends, families and professors in person.

The event, which took its inspiration from similar events at Harvard, Yale and the University of Toronto, honours graduating students ahead of next month’s Convocation – and highlights their accomplishments despite the institutional, economic and socio-cultural barriers to accessing higher education.

Hosted by Black Student Affairs Liaison Antoine-Samuel Mauffette Alavo, the event featured a roster of speakers and musical guests, and for the first time, included a semi-formal gala, dinner and awards ceremony, and an opportunity for the new graduates to network with representatives from companies such as RBC, Deloitte and Morgan Stanley.

“Statistically speaking, we are less represented in academia, so to have this kind of event where we all come together with faculty members with leaders and industries that we might want to go and work into, it’s just really all about inspiration and knowing that we did it, and that we can do so much more,” said Marie-Perle Nkosi, VP Finance of the Black Students Network (BSN) and one of the organizers of the event. “To know that I will be part of making this day special for graduating students and faculty members – that really is the essence of the event.”

Succeeding during a pandemic

Keynote speaker Che BirchwoodKojo Chang-Jones / Black Students’ Network

Many of the speakers made a point of congratulating the students not just for earning a degree, but doing so in the middle of a global pandemic, with unprecedented challenges and obstacles.

In the keynote address, community educator Che Birchwood reminded students of the magnitude of their accomplishments. “University was already hard on students, so the pandemic was like throwing gas on a fire,” Birchwood said.

Birchwood recently completed their PhD at Université de Montréal in 2021, studying the mental health challenges university students face. They found that seven per cent of students surveyed in the fall of 2020 by l’Université de Montréal had entertained suicidal thoughts, while three per cent attempted suicide – both roughly double the pre-pandemic figures. They also noted that the rate of depression among students was 20 per cent higher than before the pandemic.

“The situation for students is rough,” Birchwood told the audience, “but that makes your graduation more impressive. You did something that’s already difficult, and in some of the worst conditions possible, so congratulate yourselves double-time.”

Progress made on Anti-Black Racism Action Plan

In 2020, the University launched its ambitious five-year Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism (AP-ABR). Black Grad speakers touted the University’s progress toward meeting targets such as increasing academic and psychological support for Black students, and increasing the numbers of Black tenure-track faculty members by 40 in three years.

“We are very dedicated in our office to make sure we meet those targets to make McGill a welcoming place for more Black students and more Black faculty,” said Provost Christopher Manfredi. “So that when you go out into the world, you can tell people that McGill is somewhere they should be.”

“One of the reasons why you need to stay connected to McGill is to keep us all accountable,” said Terri Givens, Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Provost’s Acacemic Lead and Advisor on the AP-ABR. “Because you are the ones who are going out in the world, and we want you to help us to make sure we keep that pipeline going, that we keep more and more Black students coming to McGill. Not only that they come to McGill, but that they feel welcome. That they see themselves in the classroom. That representation is important.”

Using privilege for good

Yolande E. Chan, who joined the Desautels Faculty of Management as McGill University’s first Black Dean in 2021, told the grads that their education carries a significant amount of responsibility. She pointed to the story of Viola Desmond, the Black Nova Scotia woman who now adorns the Canadian $10 bill. Desmond was removed from a movie theatre in 1946 for sitting in a whites-only section, issuing a challenge to segregation and racism in Canada nearly a decade before Rosa Parks’ iconic act of defiance on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

“What you may not know is that Viola literally went out of her way to be educated, travelling to cities in the U.S. and Canada, including Montreal, to train to be a beautician,” Chan said. “She then turned around and opened the Desmond School of Beauty Culture to educate other Black women. Her students were encouraged to open businesses to provide jobs for still other Black women. She gave back.

“When we look at Viola Desmond’s story, it’s clear that life is not primarily about comfort. It’s about recognizing where you and I have advantages where we’re privileged, and using these privileges to give opportunities to others, and living courageously, boldly. And every one of us is writing a story like Viola’s, or even like mine. A little page of history.”

Award winners

Fourth-year medical student Victoire Kpadé was honoured as the recipient of the first Cadet Foundation Award, a bursary established by alumnus Nicolas Cadet (MDCM’12) with the goal of assisting Black medical students and increasing the presence of Black medical personnel. A former Quebec Regional Director for the Black Medical Students’ Association, Kpadé is also the co-founder of the Refugee Health Initiative at McGill, aimed at reducing barriers faced by refugees and asylum seekers and training medical students on cultural competency.

Meanwhile, Edourarda Taguedong and Antoney Bell were named winners of the Audrea Golding Black Student Leadership Award, which celebrates graduating Black students who have demonstrated extraordinary community leadership.

Other award winners announced during the evening’s gala were:

  • Entrepreneurship: Lens Harry Louis – Founder of Recovery Inc., an injury recovery system used by various athletic teams and physiotherapists
  • Innovation: Bryana Jean-Jacques – Founder and President of the first CBNA (Canadian Black Nurse Alliance) Chapter at McGill
  • Community Engagement: Anne-Clara Sanon – Founder and President of Girls for Ghana, a non-profit club at McGill that raises money to fund girls’ education
  • Athletics: Quarry Whyne – Co-captain of the McGill basketball team
  • Performing Arts: Nicolas Beaulne –Bachelor of Commerce, who also planned dance classes for black students during his tenure as BSN’s Project Manager
  • Leadership: Jemark Earle – One of the first Black presidents at the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and leader in student life

Valedictorians stress unity

Valedictorian Teresa Tolo Kojo Chang-Jones / Black Students’ Network

The event included speeches by valedictorians Teresa Tolo (Bachelor of Arts, major in Economics with a double minor in International Development and Management) and Jemark Earle (Bachelor of Civil Law and Juris Doctor).

In her speech, Tolo stressed the need for Black people to pull together to help achieve people’s individual goals as a collective.

“I originally come from Kenya, and one of our central values of our culture is the idea of harambe – everyone coming together to achieve a common goal. I think in our context of our experience as a Black community, and soon-to-be McGill alumni, I see this as a way that we can come together to support, uplift, and empower each other, while reaffirming our identity and our values. Simple things like sharing your friend’s hair-braiding page on your Instagram story, or referring someone in your LinkedIn network for a job. The potential for all of us to succeed by supporting one another became very clear.”

She closed with a quote from former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama.

“When you’ve worked hard and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you don’t slam it shut for people behind you, you reach back and you give other people the same chances that helped you succeed.”

Valedictorian Jemark Earle Kojo Chang-Jones / Black Students’ Network

Earle, a former SSMU president, praised the ability of Black students to band together to create change, and also urged members of the Class of 2022 to act as mentors for young people.

“Black students are capable of creating change and mobilizing,” Earle said. “I’ve seen first-hand the change that has occurred because of the relentless advocacy of the black community. Continuously champion the opportunity to make change, and provide resources and support to other marginalized students,” Earle said.

Earle ended his speech with a quote from former U.S. President Barack Obama.

“Change will never come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for; we are the change that we seek.”

Below is a photo gallery from the Black Grad event. All photos are are courtesy of Kojo Chang-Jones / Black Students’ Network