I would like to start by telling you the story of the first official hour of my university experience. I got into my dorm, signed my lease, sorted my room and mommy left so I could begin to meet new people. I heard talking in the hallway and quietly stuck my head out my door to see what was happening. Little did I realize, the door closed behind me as I stepped into the hallway. I managed to lock myself out of my room within the first 5 minutes. I was in my socks, with no shoes on, didn’t know anyone, and had no roommate yet to let me back in. I was forced to ride the elevator from the 11th floor, with everyone looking at me like I was a little crazy for being barefooted. It wasn’t exactly the first impression I had hoped for. Now, I can laugh about it, but at the time, it felt like my world was ending. What a day and what a year.
I still get flashbacks of the way the cold burned my face walking to class in the middle of February, when it was minus 20 degrees outside and I had on what felt like 30 layers of clothing. And how it was still snowing on April 19th while I was walking to my Calculus 2 final. It was times like these that I missed the Bahamas the most. However, I also smile when I think about the day my friends and I went for an impromptu walk at 10 pm during Spring break just to find something to do, and ended up riding a Ferris wheel in the snow, eating frozen maple candy.
This past year was a life changing one. From the snow and ice, to the food, to the languages and cultures, everything was eye-opening. Sometimes it was terrifying and other times enlightening. I left the Bahamas, waiting to board a plane to Montreal with my face on the front page of The Tribune as the All Bahamas Merit Scholar. I then landed in a city with millions of people from all over the world, nobody knowing or caring who this little Bahamian girl was. I went from being a big fish, in a pond, that I never considered as tiny, to an ocean filled with possibilities. Because this year for me, was full of possibilities, things to learn, do, experience, the chance to grow as a person.
I quickly realized that university is not just what I learnt in the classroom, but everything I experienced outside of it as well. From signing a lease and opening a bank account on my own, to having a roommate from Paris who never really understood my Bahamian accent, forcing me to learn to use what my friends back home called “my white girl voice.” University is about making friends, making memories, trying new things, finding out what you like from dislike and finding yourself.
You are also forced to develop your strengths, overcome challenges and hold fast to your determination to succeed. University is not a walk in the park. I fought hard during my first year at McGill. I entered with 9,000 other freshman students, all graduating at the top of their classes, just like I did, just like you did. All ambitious, overachievers, filled with dreams. But university, for me, is definitely not like high school. I went from having 5 students in my chemistry class at NGM to 1500 at McGill, auditoriums filled with 600 plus students, professors that only knew us as numbers. Nevertheless, you learn to adapt to these environments, sitting in the first row of the auditorium, instead of the back, so the numbers don’t seem as daunting, finding friends that support and encourage you, continuing to lean on God and never forgetting where you came from.
Some of my favorite days during my first year were spent with other Caribbean students. Whether it was when we held our thanksgiving dinner, all 9 Bahamians at McGill coming together to listen to rake ‘n’ scrape while eating barbecue chicken, peas ‘n’ rice and macaroni, or when I went to the Caribbean Students’ Society party and listened to Soca for the first time in months. Each of these moments allowed me a little piece of the home I love and missed so much. My parents would always tease me when they called asking how many days it was until I returned home because they knew I had a countdown that served as a reminder that semesters do end and I will be back to the beach soon enough where I could relax because my hard work over the past 4 months paid off.
You see, yes university is challenging, you will have to work, but you will make it. Being here today proves that you already have what it takes. You all worked hard in high school to get where you are, to sit where you’re sitting, where I was seated just a year ago. You have the inner drive, the potential, the desire to achieve, and don’t forget that in university. Don’t forget what your parents and teachers taught you, continue to push, to work hard, to strive for excellence and you will succeed. You may be in a different environment, but you are still the intelligent student you were in high school.
Remember where you came from, what you did to get here today and most importantly remember God. Every time I had a mini freak out this year, I’d call my parents saying it was too much to handle. Their response was, “Paloma, take a step back, and pray.” It always worked.
As you take this next step in your educational journey, you must remember that it is through God that you are seated here today. We are all blessed with these scholarships that allow us to realize our dreams. Like the many past scholars, it is now up to you to take full advantage of the belief that is invested in you by our people, allowing you the opportunity to experience and bring everything you retain home to benefit the Bahamas. I have faith that each of you seated here today will do your very best to make our country proud, because the Bahamas has put their faith in us for the future of this nation. I will continue to work hard at McGill, so I can work alongside each of you in the near future to better our Bahamas. Finally, advice for you is to enter university knowing that you have God watching over you, an amazing future ahead of you and the entire Bahamas behind you, willing you to succeed. If you absorb everything you can, make the most of every opportunity and never give up, there is no way you will fail. I will close this evening with a very timely quote by Martin Luther King Jr, “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
PALOMA CARTWRIGHT – 2017 ABM SCHOLAR
REMARKS – 2018 ABM CEREMONY