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UNBC names Class of 2021 valedictorians

Lila Mansour and Holly McVea will be the 2021 valedictorians at the University of Northern British Columbia.

They will each give a brief speech during the virtual convocation celebration on June 25. Their presentations are intended to signify a moment of celebration and respect to all those who have made the journey through classes, papers, projects and exams to the culmination of that hard work, their degree.


Lila Mansour

Lila Mansour is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts – Economics degree, with a minor in and Global and International Studies.

Growing up in Prince George, Mansour was wandering around campus and having lunch in the dining hall even before she enrolled at UNBC. As a youngster, Mansour would tag along with her mom, a UNBC student at the time, on her Pro-D days off school and roam the halls and become familiar with everything. Her parents were big supporters of northern B.C. and UNBC. Mansour knew that one day, she too would one day become a UNBC student.

“In my senior high school years, despite how attractive other universities looked, I knew for sure UNBC would be the best place for me to further my studies,” she says. “I had deep ties with my community and I wanted to stay close to home. UNBC continues to be one of the top small universities in Canada, and I was aware that there were many opportunities to be involved in the campus community.”

In Grade 12, Mansour learned she had received a UNBC Scholar Award as one of the top students at College Heights secondary. The award is a tuition waiver that funds 120 credits of a Bachelor’s degree as long as the student maintains at least a B average over the academic year.

“I was so fortunate that my hard work in high school had paid off, and that I wouldn’t have to worry about financing my first degree,” she says. “UNBC recognizes and celebrates hardworking students, and I felt welcome immediately at UNBC.”

Shortly after Mansour stepped foot on campus, this time as an actual student in the fall of 2017, she got involved in the community. For the next four years, she competed twice for UNBC’s JDC West team. She was a member of countless student-led initiatives and organizations, and volunteered at events such as TEDxUNBC, Orientation, GlobalU, and the Debate Society.

“I enjoyed being a part of the UNBC campus community, and I will truly miss it. There were always endless opportunities for support, growth, creativity and fun,” she says. “There are very few universities that have such a vibrant yet close-knit campus community. It was hard to feel part of the UNBC community this year, but I know we have all tried our best to maintain connections and keep our Timberwolf spirit alive.”

She says she’ll remember the most at UNBC are the amazing connections and invaluable knowledge she gained during her time at UNBC, adding it’s difficult to pin point one memory because her time at UNBC was a wonderful journey made up of many interconnected memories and experiences that she will always cherish.

She credits working with and taught by incredible faculty members, staff, and members of the university administration for her success as well. This includes Dr. Waqar Haque, her supervisor at the Business Intelligence Research Group computer science lab on campus for the past three years, and Dr. Kafui Monu, the JDC West faculty advisor for a few years. Faculty members in the Department of Economics and Department of Global and International Studies have also been incredibly supportive throughout her journey.

“I will always remember the friends I gained during my time at UNBC,” she says. “I haven’t met anyone who wasn’t trying to make the world a better place by furthering their education at UNBC. Many have inspired me with their dedication to UNBC and their commitment to academics.”

Being selected as valedictorian is an honourable distinction and she knows it comes with great responsibility, especially this year. She will address the College of Arts, Social and Health Sciences class during the University’s virtual Convocation on June 25.

She hopes as valedictorian she can bring people together, invoke memories of UNBC, and celebrate graduates’ accomplishments.

“I want to bring my big smile and positive energy, as it has been an undeniably difficult and isolating year,” she says. “While I may be the one representing my college, I hope that graduates see themselves represented because we have all worked so hard to attain our degrees. Being a valedictorian isn’t about me; it is about ensuring we as the graduating class has the chance to look back at our memories. Celebrate our achievements and that we have the opportunity to bid a proper farewell. Although we are apart, I hope to create a sense of community, joy and togetherness.”

She also believes she is a reflection of UNBC’s diversity and the unique backgrounds of all University’s graduates. She hopes to see more UNBC valedictorians from racialized and marginalized communities in the future.

As for what’s next, Mansour is leaving the comforts of home in Prince George and heading east to Toronto to pursue her Juris Doctor degree in law at Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Ryerson University in September.

“As a future lawyer, my goal is to make the law more accessible for marginalized communities, including BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of colour) and newcomer communities in Canada,” she says. “I believe in breaking down barriers – like language, poverty and discrimination – and ensuring justice is served.”

She credits earning her economics degree and her minor in international studies for equipping her with the analytical and critical thinking skills she will require as a future law student and prospective lawyer.

“In economics, we’re always problem solving and trying to look at issues logically and rationally, while extracting important details,” she says. “Those are skills any good lawyer should have. International studies taught me to see myself as a global citizen with the power to influence my community, my country and the world.

“Although I want to be a lawyer, running for office isn’t off the table, and I’m always looking for opportunities to make the world a better place.”

Holly McVea

Holly McVea

Holly McVea will graduate with a Bachelor of Science – Biology (Honours) degree.

If McVea hadn’t visited a UNBC student recruitment table at her high school post-secondary fair in Rocky Mountain House, Alta. to find out more about a University she hadn’t heard of, she probably wouldn’t be where she is today.

That initial conversation in 2015 and several email exchanges afterward had quite the impact on McVea as she soon applied and was accepted into UNBC. She eventually visited Prince George to participate in the Student for a Day program where she attended a chemistry lecture, had lunch, and toured campus before meeting with Megan Khan (Noble), the student recruiter she met at her high school.

“I had a lovely time, and Megan was an absolute delight,” McVea says. “She was honest about the transition to a northern timber town, and the difficulties I may come across, but she was very helpful in recommending things to do and restaurants to visit. I took the rest of my five-day visit to see the city and explore.”

After arriving on campus in the fall of 2016, McVea initially only intended to stay at UNBC for a few years before transferring to a professional program at another university. However, that fell through and she transferred her credits to UNBC’s biology degree.

It turned out it was the best decision for her.

“I’ve always excelled in biology, but I didn’t think it was something I’d one day try to pursue as a career. After switching, I was much happier,” McVea says. “The classes I was taking were enjoyable and I did well in them. I also got to know many wonderful profs in the department, which allowed me to get into the Honours degree program. After many helpful conversations with Dr. Chris Johnson, Dr. Lisa Wood took me under her wing and let me explore my passion for research; that was an invaluable experience I’ll always be grateful for.”

McVea eventually immersed herself in the UNBC community. She was elected president of the Northern Undergraduate Student Society for the 2019 – 20 school year, volunteered for various Student-Led Organizations (SLOs), and has worked as a tour guide, tutor, and climbed the ranks in the Student Life Department to the Student Project Lead position she currently holds.

Academically, McVea pursued her love for research under the guidance of her undergraduate thesis supervisor Dr. Wood. She studied the phytochemical composition and anatomy of the ‘miracle tree’ Moringa oleifera to evaluate its potential as a source of an anticancer compound and to help fill gaps in the literature.

She also gained valuable knowledge in mammal anatomy and practical applications of biology in Dr. Roy Rea’s lab. Dr. Rea allowed her the opportunity to articulate a moose calf skeleton as an independent study. Throughout the articulation, she had the support of UNBC as well as the greater Prince George scientific community. She has the opportunity to work with many wonderful people, from local business owners to international experts.

Because of her involvement in almost every facet of UNBC’s community, including her academic research and keeping her honours standing, she said it’s hard to pick just one thing that she enjoyed the most as an undergraduate student.

“If I must choose, I would likely say the people I met and the community I became a part of,” she says. “I have made some wonderful friends during my post-secondary studies, and I’ve become so involved and integrated into so many facets of the university. Because of the support from my community, I’ve been able to learn and accomplish so much with everyone by my side and cheering me on.”

McVea and her fellow Class of 2021 graduates dealt with finishing the last year and a half of their degrees learning from home due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was stressful and not easy to overcome.

She says from her experience at UNBC she will always take with her is the ‘spirit of the north’ concept.

“When I think of the spirit of the north, I think of the thousands of people who believed in the north and put forward their names and dollars to create a northern university,” she says. “I find the origins of UNBC to be inspiring. Despite all of the challenges of setting up a new institution in a rural northern community, we have an excellent University that fosters community, learning, and above all a sense of perseverance in its students. UNBC carries on the legacy of its founders by instilling, into each and every student, the spirit of the north.

“I know that I’ve had many personal struggles to overcome during my time at UNBC, as has every single student graduating this year, but despite all of these challenges we’ve gotten through it and succeeded anyway. It’s always been a quality of the north that, regardless of what stands in your way, you can do what you set your mind to.”

McVea dreamt of being a class valedictorian growing up and was disappointed that she wasn’t chosen as valedictorian for her high school class four years ago.

Once she came to UNBC, she realized to be considered for her University class she had to become a more well-rounded student and get involved in almost everything that interested her, while maintaining her strong grades. She got to know many of her fellow graduates and she believes she’ll represent them well when she addresses the College of Science and Management Class on June 25.

“I’ve been happy to see my fellow graduates succeed and I’m proud of their accomplishments, she says. “I feel like I’ve actually accomplished something and that I can take part in the celebration that is Convocation with great pride. To stand before the UNBC class of 2021 not only fulfills one of my childhood dreams, but it’s an absolute honour to be chosen to represent this class and their many impressive feats.”

After she takes a well-deserved break, McVea plans to pursue graduate studies with a master’s degree in a biology-related field. She’d also like to get her Registered Professional Biologist designation and one day become a professor. Her love for school remains.

McVea says attending UNBC and earning her undergraduate biology degree has allowed her to explore her passions and helped her become a more well-rounded and versatile student.

“UNBC has equipped me with experience, knowledge, skills, and a network to succeed in my field,” she says. “I’ve reached out to some professors at UNBC already about a master’s (degree), and several profs and staff have been so kind as to sit down with me and give me advice about working in Biology (especially Drs. Lisa Wood, Chris Johnson, and Ken Otter and greenhouse curators John Orlowsky and Doug Thompson). With all of the support I’ve been given, I’m excited to explore what the future holds for me.”

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