‘You don’t have to do it in the same way as anyone else’

Five students, some in Welcome Week apparel, smiling at the camera

Faculty of Humanities graduate Danielle Ledden (far left) celebrating Welcome Week on McMaster's campus

When Danielle Ledden walks across the stage at Convocation this week, she won’t just be a graduate of the Faculty of Humanities’ cognitive science of language program. She’ll also have received one of only two Governor General’s Academic Medals awarded to graduating McMaster students each year. 

Established in 1873, the Governor General’s medal recognizes outstanding academic achievement, and is one of the most prestigious awards available to students in Canada. 

Here, Ledden shares some reflections on her time at McMaster, and who’s inspired and supported her along the way. 

Can you tell me a little about yourself? 

I grew up in the west end of Toronto, which means I love High Park and public transit. I went to Humberside Collegiate Institute, and have been trying for years to get all of my younger cousins and friends to follow me from there to here. 

At Humberside, my French teachers would apologetically say, “OK, sorry guys, but we have to do grammar now,” but I was always excited to learn grammar. I just think it’s really cool the way that languages function, and that’s what led me into linguistics.  

When you look back at your time at Mac, what stands out? 

My time at McMaster is inseparable from Hamilton, as well as Dundas, and the many, many surrounding waterfalls. 

In Westdale, it’s been so cool to live next to a local theatre, although I didn’t see nearly enough movies there. I don’t drink coffee, but cafés definitely stand out as part of Hamilton’s culture – and provide a good place to study! 

I’m really happy most of my undergrad was spent on campus, because the more time you spend on campus, the more there is to do. My friends and I went to a few McMaster Thespian performances (Much Ado About Nothing is my favourite Shakespeare play!) and those were so much fun, and inexpensive. 

There are lots of little ways to be involved in, or just observe, the community here at McMaster and in Hamilton, and those experiences really stand out to me.    


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Humanities at McMaster (@mcmasterhum)

What do you think was the key to your academic success? 

My academic success is not entirely my own. I am lucky enough to have not had illness interrupt my school life, I was able to do school full-time for my undergrad and did not have to work, and I didn’t even have particularly gruesome group projects or teachers. 

I am grateful to the collaborators whom I did have, without whose ideas and encouragement I would have submitted work with far less confidence and passion. I am grateful to my friends who listened to my confused ramblings before every essay got turned in, and that they took my work seriously. 

I was lucky in my degree that I was passionate about nearly every course I took, and I think this was an asset to my success.  

Is there anyone you’d like to thank at this point? 

I am very lucky to have a family who supports me academically and gives me the freedom to pursue what I like. With my dad and brother, as well as aunts and uncles, I know I have a good support system. That feeling of security is a really big thing that allowed me to focus on school. 

The support of my friends and girlfriend, both academically and personally, has also been invaluable. This year, being supported through the moving process, with the passing of my cat, or with frustrating deadlines all helped me remain relatively sane. I was not alone in any of this, and I am very grateful for that.   

So, to answer the question – yes! I would like to say thank you to my dad, my brother, Alex, my aunts Carol and Cathy, my uncle Bill, my girlfriend, Hope, and all my friends from McMaster.  

What advice would you give to students who are entering first year next year? 

I was pretty nervous going into first year because I think there’s a lot of pressure placed on university to be the time of your life.  

The fact of the matter is, you will in all likelihood spend at least four years here. You don’t have to do it all, and you don’t have to do it the same way as anyone else. Attend the things that interest you, and even say yes to friends when they invite you to things you wouldn’t go to alone (I have been to so many volleyball games, a sport I do not play or understand the rules to), but take these “yeses” at your own pace.  

All of the “firsts” in university can be exhausting. Time and opportunities are abundant, and no one event has to be perfect for you to have a memorable and meaningful university experience. 

Since I am lucky enough to be honoured with an academic award, I think it would be pretty cheap if I didn’t talk a little bit about academics.  

As a learner, the simplest piece of advice is to follow your interests and take classes that motivate you to learn. However, I understand that with school, you often need high marks to achieve the things you want. As a student, I think the key thing is to understand what each class wants from you. It’s silly, but I actually do go back to the course outline with big projects and make sure my work lines up with the learning goals of the class. Along a similar vein, I always read the rubric to make sure I can meet the specific assignment objectives.  

I’m a slow worker, so timing has been crucial to my success. By starting early whenever I can, I am able to find out what confuses me and email professors and TAs about it. Actively seeking feedback wherever possible is an asset both to your own learning and skill development, and for seeing exactly what a professor wants if you are after a particular grade.  

Lastly, whenever possible, I think it is important to disentangle grades and self-worth. Tests, projects, and presentations target specific skills and oftentimes specific questions from a textbook you skimmed a month ago. A test cannot capture the extent of your interest in a topic or extenuating circumstances. It cannot be said that grades don’t matter, but they do not reflect your worth or intelligence.  

What being comfortable with myself outside of school meant for me was that when I got bad grades, I could more quickly identify what went wrong and plan for the next occasion. There are plenty of opportunities to keep trying, and remembering this definitely made my academic career less stressful.  

Click here for stories, videos and highlights from Spring 2024 convocation ceremonies and celebration events

Related Stories