Open Letter to Students of Colour – Malek Yalaoui, Community Projects Manager
Open Letter to Students of Colour at McGill from Malek Yalaoui
Below is an open letter written to all of McGill’s students of colour. I’ve recently been hired as a “Community Projects Manager” at McGill’s Social Equity & Diversity Education (SEDE) Office and my role is to offer support to racialized & ethnic students at McGill. I write this letter to explain who I am and where I’m coming from and to let students in on my own journey to this place. I hope that me sharing my story will invite others to do the same as we begin to create the community all of us deserve. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me with any and all ideas or support requests you may have. <3
This August will mark fourteen years since I arrived at McGill. It was just a few days before the start of Fall semester and I was the last one to move into rez. My parents couldn’t afford the airfare so they’d asked a family friend to drive me from Missouri to Montreal. He said yes but could only take me over Labour Day weekend. The trip lasted three days and, when we finally arrived, he dropped me off in front of RVC and waved goodbye. I met my floor fellow and together we hauled my luggage up to my fourth floor room. I was excited but also nervous and sad. Everyone else had already met and bonded and spent two weeks wondering who Malek was and why she wasn’t there yet.
Those first weeks were a complete blur. Getting my ID card, buying my books, unpacking, SSMU Frosh. My second day on campus I panicked that I was in the wrong Faculty so I went to the Registrar’s office and begged to be allowed to transfer from Arts to Education. I’d applied to both but ultimately chosen Arts and now I feared that was the wrong decision. They transferred me but – by the middle of the semester – I knew I’d made a mistake and applied to transfer back. I’ll never forget how I felt when, a few weeks into the semester, I was alone in the elevator heading up to my room and I slumped over, crumpled onto the floor and cried. “This has been a nice vacation,” I thought, “but I’m ready to go home.”
I felt completely alone and lost at McGill. Because of my parents’ precarious immigration status, I had no idea how long it would be before I would ever see them again and I only knew one person in Montreal – a childhood friend of my cousin’s whom I myself had only seen a few times growing up. The whole experience was isolating and strange – like I was an astronaut lost in a distant galaxy and struggling to make peace with the fact that I would never see home again. What made it stranger still was the fact that I spent my whole life waiting to get the hell out of my small, middle-American town. What was I expecting it to feel like all that time?
It would take about two years before I finally felt comfortable at McGill. Felt like I knew what I was doing and had some sense of where I was going. I was back in the Arts Faculty majoring in Political Science and taking as many Middle Eastern Studies courses as I could. I’d gotten involved in student politics – first as President of the Inter-Rez Council and then as a student representative to Senate. I was even writing a column for the McGill Daily. And yet, even still, my feelings of loneliness and isolation haunted me. I didn’t know who to talk to about what I now realize was my growing struggle with depression. And even though I had goals – namely, to succeed in my studies and bolster my CV – I had no idea what my real purpose was. I was also deathly afraid of going broke as every dime my family could spare went to pay my tuition fees and living expenses. It never occurred to me to take advantage of the Student Services I was paying for – whether it was Mental Health or the Career Planning Office.
And then my life began to unravel – slowly in the beginning but, by the end, completely. It began with my parents’ divorce which was ugly and in which I was far more involved than I wanted to be. And then, three years after she left my father and right in the middle of my third year, my mother moved to Montreal. She found herself in the same boat I once was: new to the city, in need of help, and knowing only one person – me. For my part, I was completely overwhelmed. It was then that I finally made an appointment at McGill Counselling Service but, when I met with my counsellor, I was terribly disappointed. He didn’t seem to understand the severity of my situation and his main advice came in the form of a book recommendation. I went to library and borrowed the book – it was young adult fiction about a white teenage boy journaling through his parents’ divorce. It wasn’t helpful.
That same year, I was sexually assaulted. I went to the McGill Health Clinic the next day but I didn’t yet have the words to describe what had just happened to me so instead I told the doctor I needed STI testing. He said I had to wait a few months because lab tests wouldn’t reveal anything from such a recent sexual encounter. I left in a haze of confusion and frustration.
In the absence of real support, I decided to throw myself more into school. I signed up for six courses and ran for a SSMU exec position. Looking back now, it’s obvious what I was trying to do (run away from my problems) and what I was actually doing (running myself ragged). Between classes and extracurricular meetings, I would leave my apartment early in the morning and come home late into the night. I lived off bowls of cereal and pancakes I would make from scratch. During exams, I regularly pulled all-nighters – once going three nights in a row with barely any sleep. That March, I spent a week campaigning to become the SSMU VP University Affairs. I was, at once, the most visible I had ever been on campus and simultaneously feeling more isolated and alone than I ever had.
When I lost that election, I lost with it the will to keep trying and whatever sense of direction I once had. I was totally overwhelmed, burnt-out and failing a number of courses. So I did the only thing I could: nothing. I had no clue, no plan and before I knew it: I was a college drop-out. I spent the 2007-2008 academic year at home, in bed, watching the days pass and promising myself I would fix everything “soon.”
In the end, I was lucky because one of my closest friends worked at McGill’s Office of the Ombudsperson which offers information, advice, intervention and referrals to students needing support. When she found out about my situation, months later, she made an emergency appointment for me the next morning. Together, me and the Ombudsperson looked at my transcripts and discussed what it would take to get me re-enrolled at McGill. He personally called McGill’s Enrollment Services, International Student Services and the McGill Counselling office and made appointments on my behalf. He also followed up with my case to ensure I was getting the help I needed versus the one-and-done appointments I’d had in the past when I tried to get support on my own. If you know anything about Ombudsmen, then you know this isn’t really their job. But he took pity on me and, out of the kindness of his heart, took my case on. By Fall 2009, I was back at McGill and that Spring I graduated with distinction – something I never thought would happen.
But here’s the thing: no student should have to rely on “luck” and “pity” in order to get the support they need. That is the reality though for too many students of colour. Often, students of colour don’t feel entitled to or comfortable using the support services their tuition fees pay for. And when they do, they time and again face folks who are culturally-insensitive at best and racially biased at worst. I didn’t realize it at the the time, but a huge part of the reason why I felt so alone at McGill was that I didn’t see enough people – whether my classmates, professors or administrators – who looked like me or reflected (let alone understood) my experiences. There are so many things that come with the experience of being a student of colour at a majority-white institution but when do we ever get the space to explore these? When do we ever get the space to talk about the psychological pressure and toll of feeling like you have to “prove yourself” or “speak for your race” or put up with yet-another ignorant comment made in yet-another Eurocentric class? When we do speak up we are too often dismissed as weak or intolerant and this is not okay. It’s not okay to feel like a second-class student at what is supposed to be a first-rate institution. It’s not okay and it must change.
That is my vision for the Community Projects Manager position. That no racialized student ever again feel disregarded or disrespected by their university and that, instead, every student gets the support they need to succeed at McGill and achieve all of their goals. To that end, I commit to creating programming – whether events or support groups or conferences – that raise awareness about and address the concerns of students of colour at McGill.
I hope you’ll partner with me as we together begin to change the climate of this place. Our first event will be a “listening launch” of the position where Shanice Yarde – SEDE’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Equity Educational Advisor – and I will be present to meet with students of colour and discuss your concerns about and experiences at McGill. For more information check out the event page – Students of Colour Speak
Gratitude and Love,
Malek Yalaoui Community Projects Manager