In conversation with 2022 Black Grad valedictorian Teresa Tolo

"I think it's not only important to find a place where you fit on campus, but to mark your presence and create the meaningful change that YOU want to see! Don't be afraid to put yourself out there and seek opportunities to learn and grow."
Teresa Tolo is graduating with a major in Economics and a double minor in International Development and Management.

On May 1, 2022, the fourth annual Black Grad celebrated the achievements of Black students in McGill’s Class of 2022. The daylong event included speeches from this year’s Black Grad valedictorians, outstanding students who 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.

Teresa Tolo is one of this year’s two Black Grad valedictorians.

“Having interned with the World Food Program in Panama last summer, and currently serving as director of contributions for the McGill International Review,” said Black Grad MC Antoine-Samuel Mauffette Alavo in his introduction of Tolo, “our next valedictorian has just graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and a Major in Economics with a double minor in International Development and management.”

As part of the Reporter’s Spring 2022 Convocation coverage, we spoke with Tolo.

What degree are you graduating with?

A Major in Economics and a double minor in International Development and Management.

What is your hometown?

This is always a tough question! I was born in Nairobi, Kenya and lived in 4 other countries (Uganda, Rwanda, Myanmar and Switzerland) before moving to Montreal, so I carry a bit of every place I’ve lived inside of me. An easier answer would be wherever my mom and my sister are, which is still Geneva, Switzerland, and is also where I completed high school.

Why did you choose McGill?

My path to McGill was a bit of a windy one. I was originally set on going to university in the U.S. and despite getting into several great schools, the lack of financial support for international students didn’t leave me with any great options. However, after seeing the more reasonable cost of tuition in Canada and hearing from people who had visited Montreal or studied at McGill from my high school, I thought it could be a great experience. Now I can confidently say I couldn’t have made a better decision! 

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

Living in Montreal has been great. From events like Igloofest in the winter to the opening up of pedestrian streets and terrasses in the summer, all the big and small joys of living in such a diverse, creative and dynamic city have made my time at McGill all the better. I’m very interested in food and cooking (follow my cooking account on instagram: @cookingwithteray!), so the range of restaurants, fresh produce markets and affordable specialty food stores is another great thing about the city. At school, getting to explore potential career interests and gaining transferable skills has definitely also been a highlight. I’ve worked for everything from Alumni Advancement, which gave me insight into fundraising and customer relations, to the Wellness Hub to Enrolment Services. 

Three favourite places on the downtown or Mac campus?

Lower field is definitely up there because the minute the sun starts to come out in the Winter semester, everyone gets to sit back and take a break from the usual hustle and bustle of getting across campus. It’s also where the Open Air Pub (OAP) happens, which would definitely be my second favorite “place”, where I have nothing but great memories from. Third choice would definitely be Vinh’s Cafe in the RVC building. There’s nothing like a big hearty bowl of delicious pho to warm you up in the winter.

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

As a lot of other students would probably agree, the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to remote learning was a difficult time, especially in the middle of what would have otherwise been the peak of my time at university. Coping with feelings such as fear and loneliness was far from how I saw myself experiencing my second year at McGill. To overcome this, I definitely had to re-orient my priorities towards my academic performance and mental health, and was able to push through with the support of my family and friends.

I’ve also gradually overcome the need to please others and conform to what everyone else was doing by instead becoming comfortable expressing my personal convictions and my unique personality. The freedom and spaces that a city like Montreal offers for you to interact with like-minded individuals and discover things that interest you have helped me realize the beauty in staying true to my own values. Now I feel empowered to only surround myself with people who affirm me and explore my interests without fear of judgement. 

Tell us about the 2022 Class of Black graduates.

Where do I start? Standing and giving my valedictorian speech at the Black Grad ceremony almost brought tears to my eyes as I looked around the room and noted all the incredible people in my graduating cohort. These are people who have excelled in their individual passions and dreams ranging from photography to philanthropy while maintaining their values, academic excellence and supporting each other in the process. 

Who or what will you miss most?

I will definitely miss the different spaces and events on campus that brought the Black community together to discuss important issues facing our community, but also just to have a good time! Soul Food Friday is probably up there for a lot of people along with conferences like the Desautels African Business Initiative (DABI) and the MASS Africa Speaks event. Getting involved by either volunteering or being part of the executive planning of these events was always such a great opportunity to interact with such accomplished, intelligent and like-minded people. I’ll also miss all the incredible friends I’ve made along the way and professors who opened my mind to so many new ideas. 

What advice do you have for new students to McGill?

I think it’s not only important to find a place where you fit on campus, but to mark your presence and create the meaningful change that YOU want to see! Although this shouldn’t come at the expense of your academic performance or wellbeing, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and seek opportunities to learn and grow. Take advantage of the resources available at McGill through the Internship Office Network, Black Student Network and other departments that are there for the purpose of helping you succeed. Finally, particularly to Black students and those from other marginalized backgrounds, be confident in the fact that your achievements and ambition have earned you a rightful place at McGill and to know that you belong no matter what obstacles or limitations you might face.

Do you have anything to add?

This is only the beginning of the rest of our lives. The best is yet to come!