Hailing from around the world, McGill’s valedictorians are a diverse, multitalented group. When they came to the University, they brought with them their unique backgrounds, passions and ambitions. While they all praise the education they received at McGill, one thing is certain, the University has benefitted just as much for having them as valuable, contributing members of our community.
These outstanding students have 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.
While COVID-19 made it impossible for them to deliver their respective addresses in in-person ceremonies, they still have important messages to deliver. The Reporter has conducted a series of interviews with this year’s valedictorians.
In this, our first instalment, we feature Tomas Jirousek, one of the Valedictorians for the Faculty of Arts. Jirousek graduated with a BA, Honours Political Science and a Double Minor in Economics and Indigenous studies.
What is your hometown?
I was raised between Whitehorse, Yukon, and the Blood reserve in southern Alberta.
Why did you choose McGill?
McGill had a reputation for academic excellence, and I was curious about living in Montreal.
What were some of your impressions when walking onto campus for the first time?
The first building I ever visited was the First Peoples’ House. I was immediately struck by the humour and warmth of the Indigenous staff at the FPH, and knew from that moment that McGill was the right choice for me.
What are some of the highlights of your time as a McGill student?
The brightest moment of my time at McGill was my leadership of a campaign to successfully change the Redmen name. It brings me great comfort to reflect on my time at McGill, and know that Indigenous students will be able to feel more comfortable and welcome on campus.
What are your three favourite places on McGill/Mac campus?
My three favourite places on campus are the First Peoples House, the McTavish reservoir on a sunny day, and the lobby of the Arts building.
I love the comfort and warmth I feel when walking into the First Peoples’ House, and appreciate the opportunity to get out and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air at the reservoir between classes.
The reason why I appreciate the Arts building is the grandiose of the pillars and stonework in the building. It really makes you feel as if you are somewhere special.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during your time here and how did you overcome them?
Some of my biggest challenges at McGill involve trying to fit everything into my schedule. Between rowing, my work in social justice, and academics, there was usually little time left in a day to just relax with friends. For me, I found that it was really important to prioritize that downtime with friends to really recharge my batteries so that I could properly engage with life as a varsity athlete without burning out.
What’s next for you?
I will be joining the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto.
What/who will you miss the most?
I will miss my fellow McGillians. What truly makes McGill a great university is the intellect, wit and compassion of our student body, and I am forever grateful for the friendships forged in my undergrad.
What are your long-term goals and plans?
I’d like to use my law degree to focus on representing Indigenous peoples who have been denied an equal opportunity for justice. I think we reflect on this time of increasing awareness of systemic racism, and we see how the justice system truly fails so many Black and Indigenous folks, and I would like to use my experiences as an Indigenous person in law to help as many people as possible.
Tell us about your Faculty and your classmates. What does it mean for you to be representing them as valedictorian?
The faculty and graduating class are truly poised to create positive and lasting change in this world. Our time at McGill has taught us valuable critical thinking skills, in a way which is unique to graduates of the Faculty of Arts. I believe, now more than ever, we need passionate McGill graduates who are willing and able to challenge institutions which uphold systemic racism.
What advice do you have for new students starting at McGill this fall?
Get involved, and try everything. McGill can feel like a really big community at times, and it’s super helpful to find a community to help you navigate these four years.
Did you “attend” your virtual convocation? Did you do anything special to mark the day?
I was surrounded by my family while watching the virtual convocations. I was fortunate enough to receive traditionally beaded moccasins, a medallion, and white-hide gloves. Even more so, I had the opportunity to take part in my convocation while wearing my grandfather’s Blackfoot headdress.
What was your experience with the pandemic?
I was offered a research assistant position with an Indigenous lawyer at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, and was fortunate enough to be able to engage with elders and family in the Kainai nation as I worked on a summer research project. While it was stressful to travel back out west from Montreal, I am grateful for the opportunity to spend some quality time in my communities.
Given that the winter semester’s on-campus activities came to an abrupt end, do you have any special “last” memories?
I went to the First Peoples House on the last day campus was open, and was able to share my thoughts on my two years representing Indigenous students with the McGill Tribune. I was truly grateful to get to share my experiences and thoughts with the Tribune, in a space which has meant so much to me, ahead of leaving campus. It’s truly been an honour to receive so much support from my peers, and I was grateful for one last opportunity to share my thoughts.
What was your experience with remote learning, and having to finish your semester (and degree) from a distance?
There were challenges and opportunities like any other. I spent the end of the semester in Whitehorse, which is three hours behind Montreal’s time zone. It became quite difficult to be getting up for my (time adjusted) 5:30 am Zoom classes at McGill, but I was nevertheless grateful to finish my studies in the safety of my community, surrounded by my family and loved ones.