Gracie Diabo is a Kahnawa’kehró:non student born and raised in Kahnawá:ke Mohawk territory, and a Loran Scholar, starting her bachelor’s in software engineering at McGill this fall. We caught up with her to chat about her passion for community aid, who inspires her, and what advice she has for fellow Indigenous students and youth.
How did you decide to focus on software engineering?
For the longest time I wasn’t sure what kind of engineering I wanted to do. Eventually, I chose software engineering because the curriculum and co-op program really interest me. I know there are great opportunities that can come from that.
Was there someone who introduced you to engineering and coding or did you just explore on your own?
It was just exploring on my own. I was interested in continuing to study science, and I gravitated towards engineering because of the skills I’d learn – like communication and working in teams. Aside from that, I was inspired by meeting women engineers through groups like McGill’s POWE (Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering), who do conferences every year with CEGEPs and high schools.
Tell us about your community aid work volunteering in Costa Rica and Peru
Right before the pandemic, when I was in high school, we went to Costa Rica to work in a local community garden and to help renovate spaces. In Peru, we helped renovate a local school and build an addition.
What draws you to volunteering and community work?
I was only in Costa Rica and Peru for a short time, so I recognized that our group couldn’t make a substantial change in the overall project, but it’s great to be able to make even a small contribution to a community in need. I enjoy making connections with others and recognizing the similarities we have. I also like working in teams and learning about other languages and cultures, broadening my worldview. It’s great to be able to help people by working alongside them to contribute to a better community in some way.
You were also the founder and president of the Indigenous Club at John Abbott College?
I started the Indigenous Club in my last year at John Abbott because I wanted to create something run by students. We had the Indigenous Student Resource Center, but that was run by staff. I felt that a student-run club would allow the space to make friends and form community and connection outside of a school setting. I drew inspiration from other student-run clubs like the Black Student Union. It was a chance to learn from each other because we had various languages and cultures within the Indigenous community at John Abbott.
One of the first things we did last year was hold a bake sale to raise money for Resilience, a local women’s shelter that predominantly serves Indigenous people. We also had some fun cooking nights, trying to cook frybread or Bannock. I’ve passed on the club to another member, so hopefully it will continue.
You also recently received a Loran Scholarship. Do you have any advice for Indigenous students and youth who are interested in following a similar path?
Just go for it. I think there’s no better time than now for Indigenous students to learn about these opportunities and jump for them. I think we do belong in these spaces. It may seem like we don’t, or we’ve been kept out, but I would push and say that we do belong in these institutions and organizations and our opinions and voices should be heard. We’re capable of making a difference and passing on our knowledge.
I found out about the Loran Scholarship because somebody at my school had won it two years prior. Be involved in your community. In Kahnawá:ke, there are scholarship postings and things like that. Even if you don’t think you meet the requirements, the worst thing that can happen is a “no” and then you just try again.
Sometimes we may think that these opportunities just aren’t for us, or there’s a belief that has been instilled in us that we won’t get these opportunities. But I think they are meant for us, and you just need to try your best and work hard. By doing that, you’ll make your community proud, and honestly, all of your ancestors proud too. You’ll inspire future generations as well. So it’s really like a Seven Generation type of thing. Working hard and making a difference will go a long way.
Is there someone in your life who has inspired and motivated you?
My family, specifically my grandmother. She’s always been a very inspiring person in my life through the jobs that she held at our local hospital and how she leads her family. I look up to her a lot.
But also all of the people in my community that have congratulated me or pushed me in some way to keep doing what I’m doing.
You took part in the IMPRESS program at McGill this summer. How did you hear about the program and what was that experience like?
I first heard about the program from being part of the Pick Your Path Indigenous program at McGill. I really enjoyed my experience and I think it should be longer, honestly!
It was great to get to know members of McGill’s Indigenous community, including the staff at the First Peoples’ House, as well as some students and professors. Now I’ll have some familiar faces on campus and that’s a confidence boost.
I was working with Professor Jin Guo of the School of Computer Science. We would meet weekly with her lab of mostly graduate students who were preparing to teach or present research at a conference. It can be intimidating working with graduate students, but they made sure I felt welcome.
What made you choose McGill?
It was mainly my existing connections to the University that pushed me to go to McGill. I gained community through programs like Pick Your Path and IMPRESS. I also have friends who already go to McGill and I know the Engineering program at McGill is great. I also really love Montreal. I’m really excited about living in the city, trying out all the different food spots, and going to festivals.
What would be your dream project to work on?
I want to continue to work with my community and perhaps eventually design a class or a workshop geared towards younger students who want to learn about programming or coding for the first time. When I was that age, I didn’t have much exposure at all to programming. It can be intimidating going to a university and seeing how much experience some people have, so I think something like that would set students off on the right foot.
Learn more about paid educational opportunities for Indigenous high school and CEGEP students at McGill
This article was originally published in the McGill Reporter.