Tomorrow, March 31, people are invited to Celebrate 200, McGill’s virtual 200th anniversary party. The virtual celebration will be hosted by two McGillians – famed NFL player and frontline healthcare worker, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, MD’18, and student reporter and President of the Black Students Network at McGill, Heleena De Oliveira, BA’21.
Both co-hosts represent some of the best qualities of McGill, including intelligence, perseverance and a commitment to serve.
In advance of Celebrate 200, we are profiling both Duvernay-Tardif and De Oliveira.
Nearing the completion of her Bachelor of Arts degree, Heleena De Oliveira is grateful for her time at McGill.
“My experiences at McGill have shaped a lot of my outlook on life. McGill has fundamentally taught me about resilience, and what it means to work towards the things you believe are worth struggling for, despite the obstacles you might face,” she says. “McGill has also taught me a lot about community; it is here that I have come to deeply value being part of a community, especially given that this can be a challenging university to navigate alone (academically and otherwise). I have met many truly exceptional people here, some of whom have inspired me in insurmountable ways. In my time at McGill, I have learned the value of hard work, and I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to study here.”
However, the journey hasn’t always been easy for De Oliveira.
Working toward a double major in Political Science and Anthropology, she is a keenly attuned to social issues and the human condition.
Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, De Oliveira completed her high school in England. Having lived in both Africa and Europe, she set her sights on North American universities to continue her studies.
“I chose McGill because of its reputation as an academically challenging institution which has a great international standing. I had wanted to live in North America for some time… and Montreal was a place I had longed to discover for quite a while,” says De Oliveira. “I also knew some friends back home from Kenya who had studied at McGill and who had enjoyed their time here so that was also great incentive to apply.”
Looking for, and finding, community
De Oliveira remembers “feeling quite nervous” when she finally walked through the Roddick Gates three years ago. It was her first time in Canada and she didn’t know a single person. She was completely alone.
“I really craved being part of a community who understood me and who I could relate to. I spent a lot of time in my first year looking for this community and luckily, I came to hear about the Black Students’ Network (BSN).”
De Oliveira signed on, joining BSN in November 2019 as Project Manager under the Advocacy portfolio and becoming President in May 2020.
More than just giving her a sense of community, however, BSN gave De Oliveira an added sense of purpose.
“I grew up reading the work of Black women activists and writers like Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison and Angela Davis amongst others who I came to profoundly respect and even idolize,” says De Oliveira. “I wanted to be able to contribute to something meaningful for my community which they could be proud of and which would uplift them, and I think that is very much what the BSN stands for.”
“In being a member of BSN I have been able to be a part of something that truly adds value to my life, and which has allowed me to actually contribute towards making observable changes (no matter how small) in other people’s lives,” she says.
Working on McGill’s Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism
Despite the pandemic, De Oliveira and her BSN colleagues have been very busy this past year. On top of public education campaigns and continued advocacy for and support of McGill’s black students, De Oliveira and her colleagues have been invited to share their knowledge and perspectives with policy makers, including Mélanie Joly, Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages.
“I am proud that despite today’s current climate and the stress which has been brought on by the pandemic, we have still stood strong and have been able to adapt in order to hold a number of events which celebrate the beauty of Black culture, including our role in collaborating with McGill African Students Society and the administration for Black History Month,” says De Oliveira. “I am really looking forward to completing the rest of the events and initiatives that we have for this year, including Black Grad, and Youth Day.”
De Oliveira is particularly proud of BSN’s work last year helping create McGill’s Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism.
“I was quite heavily involved along with the rest of the BSN executive in consulting with the administration on the drafting of McGill’s Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism,” says De Oliveira. “Our role was to convey the needs of Black students to the administration and to suggest where the University needed to supply greater institutional support for those students. Right now, the BSN is still involved along with the rest of the Black community at McGill in giving feedback on the Action Plan as it gets implemented.”
“The greatest strength of the Action Plan in my opinion is that it is living and it is adjustable. I think it is extremely important that a plan of this nature is not set in stone but rather demands consistent feedback and appraisal from the Black community,” says De Oliveira.
The next hundred years
De Oliveira sees the Bicentennial as a critical moment for McGill. “Indeed, it is a time of celebration (this institution has come a long way), but also one of deep reflection. It is also a time to recognize and celebrate the contributions of all past and present members of this community, including those who are part of the Black community whose contributions to the University, especially in the past, have often gone unrecognized.”
“I hope that McGill continues to challenge itself and its history and becomes an institution that leads the changes we will come to see in society. I hope that we see the increased representation of Black and Indigenous folk on our campus, and the integration of knowledge from those communities within this institution,” she continues. “My hopes are that we uplift those communities, not just in the University, but in Montreal, Canada, and around the world. I am looking forward to seeing what the future holds for our school.”
On March 31, take part in Celebrate 200, the virtual celebration of McGill’s 200th birthday.
The one-hour show begins at 12:30 pm and will feature performances by Inuk/Mohawk artist Beatrice Deer, Canada’s Chilly Gonzales, BMus’94, and students from our very own Schulich School of Music. Be inspired. Be amazed. Be proud of your community. Learn more and register today.
Congratulations Heleena… well done… your interview with Principal Fortier and co-hosting this historical and important event. Keep up the great works and best wishes in going forward and achieving your goals.
Congratulations, Heelena, on your life journey and success; and of course, congratulations on being part of the McGill family. As a McGill alumnus from a previous century, and the father of a daughter who is directing her own journey (albeit in the UK), I salute you, her and all the young woman who define who you are, what you do, where you go and the impact you will bring to our lives, communities and world. Heelena, you make me, and all McGill alumni, proud. Best wishes for your future. Cheers.