On Monday, April 15, 2019, I submitted my last assignment as one of your undergraduate students. Though I was ecstatic to click on Moodle’s submit button, I didn’t feel indifferent. I was aware that submitting my report meant the end of an important period in my life, that things would never be the same moving forward. I had been anticipating this moment for several weeks, of course, but it never felt as real as when I clicked on the daunting black button. Now everything’s over.
The days following my last submission were, to say the least, bizarre. Not so because I felt anxiety as to what would happen next — I am lucky enough to be employed right after graduation — but because I can hardly express how important my time with you was. As I walked down Berri St. on my way to have lunch with a friend, I became deeply emotional. I shed tears. I felt a mixture of joy and sadness, nostalgia and relief. While it didn’t come as a surprise, for I am highly conscious of my university experience, it was no longer rational. Several reasons explain why I felt this way, some of which I wanted to share with you in this letter.
I began my undergraduate degree in January 2016 and hadn’t applied to any other university. I can’t recall the exact reasons you were my only choice; I think it was clear I needed to live in Montreal and study in English, but not at McGill. Or perhaps it was because Toronto was too expensive, or because the United States seemed like a distant dream impossible to achieve. Anyhow, I submitted a portfolio I now find embarrassing and wasn’t accepted into the creative writing program. But I ended up studying English literature and professional writing. These programs fulfilled me to the point where I never regretted not getting in creative writing.
What makes me feel so strange about my graduation is to think of how far I’ve come from since I enrolled — and how many times I’ve failed. I nurture an ambiguous relationship with the past three and a half years of my life. I realize how much I’ve learned and developed myself, passing from writing cringe-worthy English prose to getting paid to write by American companies, but I can also see the hardships, the failures, and the doubts. Many were the moments when I wondered what I was doing with my life, and if I had made the right decision by studying in my second language. Amid the confusion, however, one thing was clear: you took a chance on me, and for that, I will never thank you enough.
I don’t know to what extent my story is unusual, but when I think of who I was before and after my time here, what I see is a beautiful quest for self-realization and dreams turned into reality. I came from a small town where virtually no English is spoken and brought only one certainty with me to Montreal: that we humans need one thing to devote ourselves to and that this thing, for me, was the English language. You welcomed me with open arms, making me feel like I belonged even as I came from a different background than most English students.
There are several memories from when I began my degree that I’ll never be able to forget. These include my first meeting with my academic advisor, who immediately made me feel like I was part of this family, to my first interactions with the professorate. I will always remember the professor who told me, with his British accent, comfortably seated in his Victorian chair, that I had to stop thinking like a French when I wrote papers in English. The damned language just doesn’t work like that.
My first semester, though not an easy one, was when I performed the best. Thanks to the support of professors and teaching assistants, I managed to get a 3.8 GPA and proceeded to get hired as a writing assistant in the Writing Assistance Centre. It was a funny situation to be in: I never wanted to play the French card lest I began making excuses, but I did see in it some opportunities for success. When I interviewed for the writing assistant position, I focused on my ability to understand the mechanics of English better than anyone else because I learned it as a second language.
This, in fact, was the most important lesson I learned during my stay: if you have what seems to be an impediment, go where you can use it to your advantage and use it to propel yourself. I was a French speaker in the English department. I could have seen this as an obstacle — in fact, some people around me did — but I chose to focus on how it gave me an edge. Learning English as well as possible was the only thing that truly mattered to me, anyway; I knew there was no better way to do it than what I was doing. I never once regretted the choice I’d made so long ago, that is, to do just about anything to master Shakespeare’s tongue.
You were so open, welcoming, and reassuring that quickly after my first semester, I forgot about the past and plunged into new challenges. I tried to grab as many experiences and opportunities as I could. What happens next is where the story becomes the most meaningful: everything worked out. The magic happened. Call it the snowball effect or Matthew’s law, but the insecure French speaker I used to be grew into a confident English student who often spoke in class and wrote ambitious papers. I earned good grades and award nominations, gained exciting work and volunteer experiences, and built excellent relationships with professors, a few of whom transformed my life.
It wasn’t only the professoriate; it was the students too. Students who led initiatives took me in and trusted me when they didn’t have hard evidence I would deliver, sometimes in departments I wasn’t even a part of. Hired by the Political Science Student Association, I was able, with a team of four people, to manage the 2016 edition of the Journal of Political Affairs, which allowed me to fail a few times in ways that would prove enriching. It taught me the practical skills my English Literature degree wouldn’t, and it gave me great insights in a discipline other than my own.
While I knew from the start that you could hardly be better than you already were, I still felt the urge to go away and try out another university. At the end of my first year, I arranged a semester abroad in England, which occurred at the beginning of my third year. I landed in London in late January, then took the bus to Nottingham, where I saw my life changed a second time over five months. All these opportunities were made possible by your openness. You taught me that if you ask, you’re likely to receive, which I did not only in Montreal but in Nottingham as well, and this has taken me far beyond what I thought was possible to do as a student.
Upon my return from England, when I thought I had accomplished about everything I wanted to during my undergraduate degree, I thought I might as well apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. I hesitated before committing to the application process, debating whether I actually stood a chance, but then I concluded I had nothing to lose. This is when I saw your true nature. The encouragement and support I received from both the Student Success Center (SSC) and your president showed how great of a university you are. We gathered on a Sunday afternoon with the SSC’s director and a public speaking coach to practise for interviews. And though the whole application process, I was also able to get invaluable advice from your then leader, Alan Shepard.
I’d be a fool not to mention the politics. For a political junkie like myself, I think there was no other place where I could have been better served. I often had mixed feelings about the student politics I saw, but I learned so much about what drives people, their motives and ideals, and their vision of governance. In fact, it was during the times of strife that I learned the most. After all, universities create a good many of tomorrow’s leaders, so it’s reasonable to assume that what we see on campus will have some effect on society at large one day or another. And while it’s never a good thing for tension to arise, these tensions can teach us so many things about the world.
My story is perhaps not as unusual as I think it is. However, I cannot help but think that you are extraordinary. I never imagined I could become so successful in an English-speaking environment. Yet I did. While I know myself as temperamentally high in openness, enthusiasm, and conscientiousness, I do credit the way you are set up for making my dreams a reality. My attitude and mindset would have led me nowhere had it not been for the opportunities you provided. I hope you will stay on this path and change the lives of countless others.
One last thing I would like you to know: we may live in a world where ranking matters more than anything else, but I can tell you that ranking means nothing at all if a university doesn’t serve its students well. In that department, you’re doing more than fine — you’re doing fantastic, I would even say. I would recommend anyone who wants to gain a solid education, combined with real-life experience, in one of the greatest cities in the world, while making unforgettable memories, to become one of your students. I mean this sincerely.
I most likely will never be back as a student, for I have an entire world to explore and discover, but I wish you well and thank you for everything. When I cross the stage on June 10, 2019, I officially will no longer be one of your students, but I will be one of your most grateful and proudest alumni — and a strong advocate for you wherever I go in the world.
With best wishes,