Conversations with valedictorians: Hussain Awan, Faculty of Arts

"The best part of my McGill experience has definitely been the people I’ve met. This includes both the friends I made through rez, clubs, or intramurals, and the community I was part of through my departmental student group, the McGill World Islamic and Middle East Studies Students Association"

A diverse, multitalented group, the Spring 2022 valedictorians are citizens of the world with remarkably varied backgrounds. Some hail from distant places – Quito, Ecuador; Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; and Rakh Bharoke Dhaki, Pakistan. Others were born nearby – Johnson, Vermont and Bolton Ontario. And some valedictorians come from right next door – Chambly, Quebec and Montreal’s West Island.

This year’s cohort, while coming from vastly different backgrounds, share enthusiasm, ambition and a well-rounded philosophy of life. These outstanding students have also earned the respect of the peers who they represent through their strong academic performance, leadership and commitment to making the University – and the world – a better place.

As part of our Spring 2022 Convocation coverage, the Reporter is conducting a series of Q&A interviews with some of our valedictorians.

In this instalment, we feature Husain Awan, who delivered the valedictorian address for the first Arts ceremony on May 30.

Where is your hometown?

My hometown is a village in the province of Punjab, Pakistan called Rakh Bharoke Dhaki. It’s a couple of minutes off of the highway outside of Wazirabad, and a few hours north of Lahore. The village is a beautiful little place, with dozens of mud-and-brick, flat-roofed houses surrounded by irrigation canals and the greenery of the agricultural fields.

My family left Pakistan when I was very young, however, so I didn’t get to stay there much. In Canada, we moved to the similarly rural setting of Cupar, Saskatchewan. I spent most of my childhood in this town of 500 people, going to the K-12 school down the street, playing hockey at the Cuplex, and spending hours in the tiny library on Main St. on the two days in the week for which it was open.

Why did you choose McGill?

After graduating high school from Saskatchewan, I was excited to move out of province and try new things. McGill appealed to me because of its reputation as Canada’s best university, its location in a bustling city, and its strong Islamic Studies department. I’d actually never visited campus before orientation week, but I can’t say I regret going with my gut and choosing McGill.

What is your degree?

I started out in Political Science and Economics, but eventually switched to a double major in World Islamic & Middle East Studies (WIMES). My minor was in French.

What are some of the highlights of your time as a McGill student?

Outside of class, some of the most fun I had was with Beşiktaş U21, the Tier 4 intramural soccer team that I captained in senior year. Our motley crew – ranging from ex-varsity players to people who’d never touched a soccer ball before – gelled into the most dominant squad in Tier 4 history (of which there has been one season so far), going undefeated and winning the playoff title. My intramural championship mug remains one of my most prized possessions.

In terms of academics, my favourite McGill class was probably the ISLA 380: Islamic Philosophy and Theology course I took with Prof. Robert Wisnovsky, along with the follow-up ISLA 602 graduate-level seminar that I received special permission to take the next semester. Another course that I enjoyed a lot was ISLA 383: Central Questions in Islamic Law with Prof. Walter Edward Young. Lastly, I finished off my undergrad with a thesis that I wrote for ISLA 495, my department’s capstone course, centered on the reception of Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī’s philosophy over the last four centuries.

Three favourite places on McGill campus?

As anyone who knows me could tell you, 95 per cent of the time I spent on campus was inside the Islamic Studies Library (otherwise known as Morrice Hall). In addition to the many classes I took there over the years, the building’s famed Octagon Room served as my go-to study spot. Morrice is known for being the quietest library on campus, where even a whispered conversation with a friend next to you elicits hushes from the omnipresent librarians. Shout out to Morrice’s custodian, Freddy, for keeping the building spotless and always being around for a conversation if you needed one (or even if you didn’t).

My next favourite spot on campus would be the Fitness Centre in the Currie Gymnasium. It might well have been the busiest gym I’ve ever been to and finding a free bench on weekdays after class was nigh on impossible, but cheap membership rates and the prospect of seeing friends there made sure that cash-strapped students like myself returned semester after semester.

Lastly, I think Douglas Hall (and Forbes Field next to it) would take third place. Every school day in first year ended with me trudging back up the hill to rez in Doug, and many weekends were spent kicking a soccer ball up and down the length of Forbes.

What’s next for you, both short and long term?

In August, I’m off to Boston to begin working towards my J.D. (Juris Doctor) at Harvard Law School. I don’t have an area of law that I’m set on pursuing so far, but I hope to use my education to work in something related to public interest law (some derisively call this “trying to save the dolphins”), probably somewhere in the United States.

Who or what will you miss most?

The best part of my McGill experience has definitely been the people I’ve met. This includes both the friends I made through rez, clubs, or intramurals, and the community I was part of through my departmental student group, the McGill World Islamic and Middle East Studies Students Association (WIMESSA) – for which I served as President in senior year. Before the pandemic, we used to have coffee hours on a biweekly basis in the WIMESSA lounge on the third floor, with dozens of students packing into a relatively small room to socialize, eat hummus and mana’eesh, and listen to whichever random Spotify playlist had been picked for the evening.

My time at McGill kicked off with the Muslim Students Association (MSA)’s Halal Frosh and ended with an MSA Ramadan Iftar I went to last month. In between, I got to know and become a part of a wonderful and lively community, through which I met many people I count as my closest friends. Some other members of the MSA and I also started the Thaqalayn Muslim Association (TMA) about halfway through my degree, to supplement the MSA’s events and cater specifically to Shī‘ī Muslims. I’ve also made many good friends through the TMA since then.

What was your experience with the pandemic?

It involved playing a lot of Warzone.

What advice do you have for new students to McGill?

My little brother, Shouzab, is coming to McGill next year to start at Desautels, so I have experience answering this question!

My biggest piece of advice to him has been to emphasize that his first year at McGill will be the most important, for a number of reasons: he’ll meet most of his friends in rez and the clubs he picks as a freshman, and he’ll also face the challenge of university-level academics for the first time. I’ve been telling him to come to Montreal ready to meet new people, join a club or two, and then to settle down for the grind and to not take the academic challenge too lightly. And while that last point is important, it’s also crucial knowing when to de-stress and have some fun.

I don’t think he’s been listening, though, because he’s mostly just looking forward to the Montreal poutine.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the world today? How confident are you that we can address these challenges and make a difference?

I would say that the two biggest challenges facing the world today are global wealth inequality and climate change. I’m more optimistic than most, so I think we’ve got an outside shot at addressing them.

I wrote an article a couple of years ago in the Tribune, McGill’s student-run newspaper, on some of these problems in the context of the then-ongoing US presidential campaign. The developments since then have not been the most encouraging, to say the least, but I think it’s still worth a read.

Below is the video of Hussain Awan’s address.