Overcoming adversity to advocate for environmental and social justice

How Val Munoz is using her own life experiences, and the power of storytelling, to make an impact
Val Munoz earned a Queen Elizabeth scholarship that has allowed her to participate in a research program at the University of the West Indies St. Augustine Campus in Trinidad.

“Storytelling is a powerful teaching tool,” shares Val Munoz, who graduated from McGill in June with a BA from the Bieler School of Environment. “There are so many twists and turns in my story, you don’t see that a lot in McGill students.”

By sharing her story through articles like this one and through various initiatives she’s involved in at McGill, Munoz hopes to show others who’ve faced similar struggles that it’s possible not only to overcome adversity, but to follow your chosen educational path and thrive.

Munoz was born in Montreal to parents who had fled Guatemala in search of a better life. After living in Florida, they had made their way to Quebec. But when Munoz was 4, her family’s refugee claim was rejected. They moved back to Florida.

Setback led to transformative opportunities

 Without legal status in the United States, Munoz could not even get a driver’s licence, for example, and had to work illegally in a kitchen after school to help support her family.

After Munoz was accepted at McGill, she decided to defer her admission for a year while she worked with a lawyer to try to finally secure her US residency.

Unfortunately, Munoz’s application was rejected. But always seeking the positive in every experience, Munoz says she feels grateful that the delay gave her the opportunity to do two internships — experiences that turned out to be transformative.

Sparking a passion for sustainability and social engagement

 Munoz’s first internship was with a small non-profit working to promote local business development on the Prosperity Coast, in the southeastern part of the state. This gave her valuable experience in event organizing.

The second was a year-long internship with a sea turtle hospital, working on a stretch of beach to preserve and protect the local biodiversity. Munoz worked with the hospital’s education department, engaging locals and tourists alike.

“I never would’ve met or spoken to these people. And to be able to teach them about something so crucial as sea turtle and ocean preservation was so important,” she shares. “That’s what led me to pursue my BA in Environment, which really brings together my interests in environmental and social justice.”

Following her passion and purpose at McGill

Finding her way back to Montreal in order to follow her passion for environmental advocacy at McGill wasn’t easy, given the social and financial challenges she faced. But now that she’s here, Munoz is determined to make the most of the experience. “I worked very hard in school to be able to come here. I’m a first-generation university student as well, so that’s very exciting for my family to break that generational cycle.”

Munoz’s decision to come to McGill was partly situational. Because she was born in Quebec, she has been able to take advantage of the lower tuition fees for locals. Another major draw was the University’s interdisciplinary Environment program, which blends traditional science courses with arts and social sciences courses, “the perfect fit for my interest in human and planetary health.”

Every Environment student is required to do a research project. Last summer, Munoz participated in a field study program in Barbados, where she and 19 other students spent mornings in the classroom covering topics like food security and sustainable land use. In the afternoons, they headed into the field to see everything they were learning in action. McGill defrays part of the cost of participation and also helps students tap into other sources of funding.

Munoz is spending a summer semester in Trinidad for a research exchange program, this time thanks to a Queen Elizabeth scholarship. She is working to improve climate disaster literacy in the region, which is prone to tropical storms and flooding.

Advocating for the queer community on and off campus

The environment isn’t the only cause Munoz is committed to; she’s also an advocate for the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. On campus, she serves as the events co-ordinator for Queer McGill, a role that involves raising awareness and engaging as many people as possible to support the organization’s mission. “You won’t believe how many students didn’t even know we existed, so we’re really trying to change that.”

In addition to her work with Queer McGill, she works with McGill Branches, the University’s community outreach program dedicated to supporting marginalized groups.

Through McGill Branches, she has been involved in the 2SLGBTQIA+ mentorship program co-ordinated by South Asian Studies lecturer Twisha Singh.

Participants work closely with queer CEGEP students to share the support systems and programs available to them, at McGill and in the broader community. She has been paired up with one student to mentor personally, something she feels “proud and honoured” to do.

“We’ve done financial literacy workshops, talks on transitioning to university. We’ve also had panel speakers come in and share their experiences,” she says. “It all comes back to the storytelling. When we share our stories, you realize we’re all similar and finding that community is awesome.”

Plans for the future

Munoz hasn’t decided whether she’ll stay in Montreal long-term. Whatever the future holds, she feels grateful for her time here.

“The people I’ve met here are so open-minded, kind and supportive. I wouldn’t be here without the people who’ve uplifted me and I’m so grateful for them.”

One thing she is sure of is that after graduating this year, she’ll be staying on at McGill to pursue her master’s degree in educational leadership, with a focus on human health.

“I know I want to teach in some capacity, whether for a non-profit, government, maybe even as a professor. You never know what’s going to happen, but no matter what, I’ll be happy if I’m able to promote these causes. We’ll see where it takes me!”

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