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Students at VP Kamala Harris's Montreal alma mater say her rise serves as inspiration

Last Updated Jan 20, 2021 at 4:54 pm EST

MONTREAL — Students at Montreal’s Westmount High School spent Wednesday morning watching a former graduate ascend to one of the highest political offices in the world, with Kamala Harris’s new post as U.S. vice-president sending a message that nothing is beyond reach.

“When we stay in the same high school for five years, it can make the world seem quite small,” Ava Oxilia, a Grade 10 student at the school, said in a video call organized by the board.

“To know that she was in a very similar place to a lot of our students here, and then she reached one of the highest positions in the U.S. government, it’s just incredible to believe anyone of us could obtain such a high position.”

Harris, 56, moved briefly to Montreal at age 12, attending Face and later Westmount High School before graduating in 1981.

It was in those halls that Wanda Kagan, a good friend to Harris during her time in Montreal, met the new U.S. vice-president and even ended up living with her for a time.

How many people can say they bunked with a vice-president, Kagan asked with a laugh on Wednesday as she said she was elated for her friend.

“Anyone can make history, but only a great woman can write history, and that’s what she’s going to do,” Kagan said in an interview.

Kagan said the pair became close friends, two children from biracial families navigating a bigger high school. “We were just trying to find our way, fitting in, and we just fit in together,” she said.

Kagan would confide in Harris during those school years that she was being abused at home, and Harris’s late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, insisted she come live with them. “They just treated me like family. I just hung out with Kamala in her room listening to music, doing homework,” Kagan said. “They instilled a lot of my values that I carried on later in life.”

After reconnecting in the mid-2000s, Kagan said Harris told her that helping her friend during their high school years inspired her legal career defending women and children from abuse.

Kagan said she had no doubt Harris and her family helped shape her life. “But to know that I impacted hers was huge,” Kagan said. “She was a trailblazer back then, fighting for my rights, my dignity, my humanity.”

The school has been paying close attention as Harris’s political career took off, and on social media Wednesday it congratulated its illustrious alumna on her swearing-in as the 49th U.S. vice-president.

Students streamed the inauguration during second period, with Grade 10 student A.J. Itovitch later describing the pride felt in seeing someone who walked the same halls rise to such heights.

“The energy has been absolutely palpable over the past few weeks at the school, and it’s just so difficult to wrap our head around the fact that the 49th vice-president came … right out of Montreal,” the 15-year-old said. “We have been doing all we can just to take in all of this.”

Principal Demetra Droutsas said Harris’s rise has been inspirational. “I want our students to really retain they should dream big, they should never limit themselves and they can do anything they set their minds to,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2021.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press