Conversations with valedictorians: Samuel Balcazar Castellanos, Faculty of Arts

"The learning opportunities at McGill are immense. There are so many pathways to grow and step out of your own comfort zone. These experiences are incredibly rewarding."
Samuel Balcazar Castellanos

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 Samuel Balcazar Castellanos, who delivered the valedictorian address for the second Arts ceremony on May 30.

What is your hometown?

A bit of a complicated question for me. I was born in Quito, Ecuador. My parents are also Ecuadorian, but I moved to Venezuela when I was six months old and have not lived in Ecuador since. I then lived in four different cities across Mexico over the span of eight years. At the age of eleven, I moved to Kuwait until I graduated from High School. I consider all of these places to be pieces of my hometown in one way or another. However, presently, I consider home to be where my parents are, wherever that may be.

Why did you choose McGill?

As an international student, McGill’s excellent academic reputation always called my attention. During the application process, I noticed that McGill would allow me to do a Joint Honours program, which seemed like an attractive option for an eighteen-year-old who was not 100 percent sure of what field to get into. Due to its rigorous curriculum, I knew that I’d be consistently challenged, and that I would be surrounded by bright, extraordinary individuals. The cherry on top of everything was that it’s situated in Montreal. It was the best choice I could have made.

What is your degree?

I did a Joint Honours in Economics and Finance, with a minor in International Development. I’m fascinated by the overlap between these disciplines.

What were some of your impressions when walking onto campus for the first time?

I remember thinking that the view of the Arts building from Roddick Gates was breath-taking. I can still recall how excited I felt the moment I truly conceptualized that I would be studying here for the next four years. I also remember being impressed by how fashionable everybody at McGill seems to be. I loved it.

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

The learning opportunities here are immense. There are so many pathways to grow and step out of your own comfort zone. These experiences are incredibly rewarding. Some of my favourites include being an editor for the McGill Business Review, my internship with the United Nations, and supporting the Arts Internship Office with workshops for students.

Three favourite places on McGill/Mac campus?

The fifth floor of McLennan Library holds a special place in my heart. Not only because I was always there during exam season, but also because depending on where you sit, you get a lovely view of Lower field.

The McGill gym.

The benches as you walk from Roddick Gates to the Arts Building. But not in the Winter.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during your time here and how did you overcome them?

It’s not a secret that trying to manage everything at once can become overwhelming. Between McGill’s demanding academics, attempting to maintain a sustainable and balanced lifestyle, and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, there were times when I felt truly exhausted. Especially during the time where everything was online, it was common for me to feel detached from reality, as well as unmotivated.

Personally, I was able to slowly overcome these challenges by prioritizing my mental health and learning to let things go. Focusing on the positive, as well as being able to break things down into smaller, manageable components of life has allowed me to face things with a firmer mindset.

Currently, I’m very much a “one step at a time” kind of person. It makes things easier. Moreover, I cannot stress enough how important it’s been for me to surround myself with people that care about my success. Having a strong support system goes a really long way.

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

Towards the end of this year, I’ll be starting a job in consulting, which I am ecstatic about. Long term, well, it’s too soon to tell.

Tell me about your Faculty and your classmates. How important have they been to your overall McGill experience?

The expertise from professors was an integral part of this journey. Beyond the class curriculum, I was able to hear about different perspectives regarding my fields of interest and our academic discipline. The experience that the faculty shares with students is eye-opening, and I cannot describe in words just how important it is.

As for my classmates, I’m confident to say that they have been the best part of this whole experience. Having the opportunity to discuss and hear different viewpoints from such intelligent, accomplished people is an evident highlight of my McGill experience. There is so much to learn from every person you meet. A special shout-out to my Honours Econ class, we’ve supported each other throughout the entirety of this degree. From study groups, to review sessions, to coffee-runs, I’ll miss them dearly.

Who or what will you miss most?

Might be a bit of a basic answer, but I will miss the people infinitely. My Honours Econ squad. My friends from Rez, student clubs, classes, friends of friends. And everyone I have met along the way.

What advice do you have for new students to McGill?

Though it’s easier said than done, do not compare yourself to others. This is your journey, your education, and your growth. Nobody else should make choices on your behalf. Being consistently worried about where you stand in comparison to others will only distract you from the things you can accomplish.

I’d also like to remind students that we are each responsible to construct the university experience that we want to have. Pursue the opportunities that you want to explore, meet people, and be proactive. Whatever you hope to take away from your McGill experience, you have the power to make it happen.

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?

Personally, I see one of our biggest challenges to be holding on to our old lifestyle, while persistent threats like the pandemic and the climate crisis serve as wake-up calls to revaluate our priorities and focus on the things that truly matter. Well-being, relationships, kindness.

There are multiple social issues – related to injustice and discrimination – that prevent us from achieving harmonious living. These issues are incredibly complex, and often so imbedded into society’s structure, that in order to adequately address these crises, we need strong commitment and willingness to learn from our mistakes in an effort to rectify them. I hope that we use our education to be reflective of our responsibility to the world, and act. I am a firm believer that little positive things make a big difference. Just like compounded interest rates. Ha-ha, sorry, I had to.

But, in all seriousness, change comes with action.

Do you have anything to add?

Mom, Dad, I cannot thank you enough. And to all my wonderful friends who are protagonists of so many memories worth cherishing, I just want to reiterate how grateful I am to have embarked on this journey with you all.

Below is the video of the Faculty of Arts ‘B’ ceremony. You can view Samuel Balcazar Castellanos’ address at 2:14:20.