In conversation with Jenni Makahnouk, valedictorian for the Arts ‘A’ ceremony

"Success is great, but failure is a better teacher. I learned more about my strengths and weaknesses through my failures than through my successes. Each time I stumbled, it showed me where I needed to improve."

In this special series of Q&As, McGill’s 2024 valedictorians share their insights and perspectives as they reflect on their academic journeys and look back at the moments that defined their time at McGill, from navigating the challenges of entering McGill during the COVID pandemic to finding and fostering a sense of community.

Today, we feature Jenni Makahnouk, one of the valedictorians for the Faculty of Arts. Makahnouk, who has earned a Bachelor of Canadian Studies with a minor in Indigenous Studies, delivered her address at the Arts ‘A’ ceremony on Monday, June 3, at 10 a.m.

Please note, the answers have been edited for brevity.

Why did you choose McGill?

Originally, I chose the University of Alberta [in Edmonton, where I was living] and its Faculty of Native Studies. That’s where I began my studies.

During COVID, I was living with my father whose housing situation was unstable due to his addictions. Unfortunately, this living situation was dangerous for me, and I chose (with the encouragement of my counsellor and the University of Alberta) to transfer to a different university. I chose McGill, because I wanted to improve my French skills and because of the distance it would create between me and my father.

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

I was excited to be in Montreal and I loved all the outdoor spaces. I loved the vibrancy of downtown and the buildings. I loved watching the squirrels. Having a large outdoor space was grounding for me. The first time I was on campus, I took an hour to sit in lower field and watch the squirrels, the dogs and the people.

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

My trips to Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco and Egypt with Hot Cities were a highlight. I never thought I would get to see the pyramids, especially not as a student.

More important, through the Canadian Studies program, I had the opportunity to present my scholarship at academic conferences in Boston, Washington DC, and Ireland. I met scholars and developed deep friendships through these conferences, and I gained confidence.

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

Moving from Edmonton and the University of Alberta between my first and second years was not easy. I moved across the country with no support and no knowledge of Montreal, during the COVID pandemic. I felt very isolated, but I was excited to get myself out into the McGill community.

Last fall, someone almost killed my father. Being so far away from him and from my family compounded my distress. I spent a lot of the fall term liaising with police, social workers, the hospital and my family. That was a real challenge.

What got me through was the immense support from McGill: I received counselling services through the Student Wellness Centre. First Peoples’ House was unbelievably supportive. My friends were also there for me. Professors were extremely understanding, which helped reduce some of the pressure, and I appreciated that.

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

I am coming back this fall for my master’s in Education. I started the Anishinaabemowin language study group here on campus and have loved teaching my language to other students. I plan to do more work around Indigenous curriculum, language learning and pedagogy.

Long term, I am most likely going to do my PhD and work in Indigenous education.

How has McGill helped prepare you for your next chapter?

McGill has allowed me to develop confidence.

When I began my studies, I thought I was going to go to Law School or do something in policy. Instead, I found I enjoyed teaching. I had thought I knew what I wanted, but McGill opened my eyes to different possibilities for my future. I was able to try different things and see what I was most passionate about.

What advice do you have for students new to McGill?

Success is great, but failure is a better teacher. I am a valedictorian, but I failed two classes during my undergraduate degree. I learned more about my strengths and weaknesses through my failures than through my successes. Each time I stumbled, it showed me where I needed to improve. It wasn’t easy, but it taught me a lot about myself.

For Indigenous students, I would add: Come to First Peoples’ House. The support offered there is unparalleled. The community I have found here at McGill has helped me more than I can put into words and First Peoples’ House is a big part of that.




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