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Alumni through the decades

Alumni from each decade of University Affairs' existence remember their on-campus adventures

BY DANIEL DROLET | OCT 05 2009

One way of telling the story of 50 years of university life is through the people who walked through your doors, took an active part in what the place had to offer, and made something of their lives. The people chosen for these alumni profiles – one for each decade of University Affairs’ existence – accomplished that in spades, but each in their own way. Guided by our longtime contributor Daniel Drolet, you’ll meet a politician, an author, an impresario, a journalist, an engineer-entrepreneur and a star athlete. Their individual recollections of campus life, sprinkled throughout this month’s issue, may awaken memories of your own. Taken together, their experiences create a vivid tableau of the changing campus from the student’s point of view – from the exclusivity of the 1950s, through the upheaval of the ’60s and optimism of the ’70s, the party years of the ’80s, to this century’s can-do generations.

Catherine Callbeck (1959)

A simpler time

Life was simpler in 1959. For students at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, it was a life that was rich in human contact and campus spirit, even if it was lacking in many other things.

Catherine Callbeck looks back fondly on that time. The Liberal senator and former premier of Prince Edward Island graduated in 1960 with a degree in commerce, the only woman in her class. She says her years at Mount Allison nourished her with lifelong friendships and launched her into a career in politics.

University life in the 1950s was full of restrictions and privations. Ms. Callbeck lived in residence, where up to 20 women shared a single bathroom. They had to sign in and out of residence at night and faced a 10 p.m. curfew.

The only student demonstration she recalls was to protest the food. Cafeteria food was monotonous, often consisting of beef “that always seemed to be very dried out,” boiled potatoes, squash and dessert.

No one had money, so a big date was a coffee in town. But students participated eagerly in intramural sports, and on Saturday nights there were dances in the old gym – the girls lined up at the back and waited for the boys to ask them to dance.

People hitchhiked to get around. Ms. Callbeck was one of many Mount Allison students to hitch a ride to Springhill, Nova Scotia, about 50 km away, in the fall of 1958, to see whether they could help the community cope with the grim mining disaster, one of Canada’s worst.

Despite being the only woman in commerce, Ms. Callbeck says, “I didn’t feel I was set apart from my commerce classmates because I was a woman.” She had plenty of contact with other women because many of her courses were outside commerce, “so I really mixed with students from all fields and faculties.”

Mixing was easy on a campus with just 1,000 students. Classes were small, and students knew each other – and their professors as well. “The professors really took a genuine interest in you,” she recalls. “They knew your name, and you were a real person to them.”

Mount Allison brought her out of her shell, she says. And the single television in the residence common room helped bring the wider world to campus and set the stage for the social revolution of the 1960s.

John Ralston Saul (1969)

Confidence & confrontation

It was the sheer confidence of his generation that John Ralston Saul remembers. No one worried about getting a job – a job was a given for anyone with a university degree in the late 1960s.

And for that cocky generation, the world was their oyster, and they were going to remake it in their image.

The ’60s was an era of political upheaval. Dr. Saul’s time at McGill, 1966-69, were the years of Expo 67 and “Vive le Québec libre!” They were years of strikes and demonstrations and 10,000 people on campus yelling “McGill français!” John Ralston Saul was along for the ride.

The demonstrations were a regular occurrence. McGill sits on the slope of Mount Royal, and Dr. Saul remembers one occasion when police chased them up the hill. The demonstrators, younger and more vigorous, threw snowballs at the police and ran away.

Novelist Hugh MacLennan and poet F.R. Scott taught at McGill then, and Dr. Saul was in awe of them. “Two friends and I would follow MacLennan through the streets, tracking him from a distance,” he remembers, “curious about what a great author was like.” He did see F.R. Scott – at a demonstration, of all places – and introduced himself. Scott gave him a withering put-down of a look that the younger man never forgot.

Dr. Saul studied – but not too much. Instead, he read, often outside the reading list. He discovered he could answer just about any exam question by quoting War and Peace.

And he walked. “None of us had cars,” he says. “We all walked enormously around Montreal and felt we were discovering a magical place.”

He and his friends were at university for the ideas, not to prepare for a job. “The whole arts faculty thought the business school was intellectually inferior. Little did we know that they would come to take over society – and make such a mess of it!”

Gilbert Rozon (1979)

A time of possibility

When he thinks back to his years at Université de Montréal – 1976 to 1979 – Gilbert Rozon remembers a time of unbridled optimism. After decades of offering an exclusive experience for small numbers of students, Canada’s universities had thrown open their doors. Baby boomers rushed in, filling campuses with the confidence, idealism and energy of a generation taking its place in the world.

“What I remember was the feeling that anything was possible,” says Mr. Rozon, who studied law. In some ways he was typical of his generation. He came from a small town and was the first member of his family to go to college or university.

Because his family wasn’t well-off, he had to work to pay for his studies. Already the entrepreneur, he took an unorthodox approach to his education. He rarely went to class; instead, he paid students to take notes and tape lectures, had a secretary type up the notes, and hired other students to do research. Meanwhile, he worked full-time running a small company and spent two hours a day going through the material others had summarized.

When he wasn’t working or studying, he revelled in the heady atmosphere in Montreal following Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics. He remembers bumping into Mick Jagger on the dance floor of Night Magic, a trendy disco. It seemed, he says, a perfectly normal thing at the time.

As a student he struggled, particularly during first year, but he persevered. And if his approach to education was unique, his appreciation of its benefits was not. He quickly realized he would not be a lawyer, but he stayed in school because he valued what he was learning.

Law, he says, taught him how to structure his thoughts. “I thank God every day for that, because I needed structure.”

In 1983, four years after graduating, Mr. Rozon founded Just For Laughs, now one of the premier comedy festivals in the world. And he remains a huge fan of postsecondary education, saying it trains people’s minds and gives them the tools they need to get ahead.

Paul Wells (1989)

The party years

When journalist Paul Wells thinks back to his time at the University of Western Ontario – 1984 to 1989 – the film Animal House comes to mind. Times were good, politics took a back seat to partying and university seemed more about beer than books.

Outside, the mid-to-late ’80s was a time of great social debates. The country argued over Canada-U.S. free trade and the Meech Lake accord. Internationally, these were the years of the first Palestinian Intifada and the end of communism in Eastern Europe and apartheid in South Africa.

Mr. Wells recalls seeing ripples wash over campus – Palestinians demonstrating in support of the Intifada, debates on apartheid. But even though he worked for the student newspaper, the big issues didn’t register there. “Political engagement was not the tone of the campus,” he says. “We were always looking forward to the next party.”

Saugeen Maitland residence, his home for two years, was called The Zoo. The party lasted from Thursday afternoon to Monday morning: “Everybody had memorized large stretches of dialogue from Animal House. We could even sing all the songs.”

The bars on and off campus always beckoned. “I learned that the best way to meet girls was to go to the CPR Tavern and buy a plate of fries at 12:30 a.m.,” he relates. A half-hour before closing, people were drunk, “and every girl in the bar would want some of your fries.”

But, through it all, there were glimmers of academic resolve. Mr. Wells started out studying chemistry before switching to political science. He recalls with great fondness a chemistry teacher, Dino Bidinosti; because of him, he toughed it out in chemistry longer than he would have. “He made me think I was good at science,” says Mr. Wells.

And, in hindsight, all the social interaction changed his life. An invitation to join the university’s model parliament got him thinking about switching his major to political science.

“And it was the hundreds of hours I spent at the campus paper that made me a journalist,” he says. “Not ‘made me want to become a journalist.’ We absolutely saw the twice-weekly Gazette as a real newspaper with real obligations to the craft and to our readers.

“We actually used to talk like that. And we had a few good parties too.”

Parker Mitchell (1999)

Connecting with the world

Parker Mitchell studied engineering at the University of Waterloo between 1994 and 1999, during the Internet and high-tech boom. New technology was central to his university experience and set the path of his career. It also inspired a generation motivated by what he calls “the belief in possibility.”

It was his own such belief that led Mr. Mitchell, along with fellow student George Roter, to found Engineers Without Borders, an international development organization that gives poor people access to technology. Their success led Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Roter to be named among Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 business leaders in 2005.

It all started at U of Waterloo where, as engineering students, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Roter were caught up in the excitement of online technology. “That five-year period was about the tremendous booming of technology and innovation,” says Mr. Mitchell. “That played a role in the lives of the people who graduated around those years.”

Microsoft came to campus to recruit, and fellow students did work terms at burgeoning technology companies in California and came back buzzing about the possibilities of what the companies were creating. The excitement was local, too, as Waterloo-based Research in Motion developed the BlackBerry. “I remember the excitement of laptops coming out,” says Mr. Mitchell, “and trying to find an affordable one.”

His interest in development started with a simple water purification system he invented during the final year of his bachelor’s degree. He soon realized that the problem of access to clean water in the developing world would not be solved by a Canadian creating a cheap purifier. The problem was broader, and there were ways to do something about it. Engineers Without Borders was born.

“The first $30,000 of expenses went onto our credit cards,” Mr. Mitchell recalls. “I think it’s important for people to know that you have to be pretty passionate about what you do.”

The technology he grew up with at university – laptops, the Internet, Skype – is central to what he does now. “We wouldn’t have been able to create Engineers Without Borders,” says Mr. Mitchell, “without the burgeoning communications technologies.”

Courtney Gerwing (2009)

The sporting life

Courtney Gerwing was a star athlete during her time at Simon Fraser University, playing women’s basketball on a team that was a three-time national champion with Canadian Interuniversity Sport. The 23-year-old from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, who graduates this year with a degree in psychology, says athletics defined her university experience. Most of her time at SFU was spent playing basketball or studying. Almost by default, athletics ended up being her social life, too.

Ms. Gerwing revelled in the perks of being on a winning team: “I’ve been all around Canada [to compete], which is awesome.” She also used her star status to do good, helping organize an initiative with three other team members that raised $18,000 for the B.C. Cancer Foundation.

Armed with “pretty good study habits,” she found balancing sports with the academic side of university wasn’t a problem. In fact, she was an academic all-Canadian every year of her career and won the CIS Sylvia Sweeney national award for combining sport, academics and community service.

Typical of her generation, she used the Internet to do most of her research for classes. She admits that it wasn’t until her last year at university that she actually felt the need to understand how certain parts of the SFU library worked.

Now that university is over, it’s time to move on. Ms. Gerwing, however, is in no hurry to grab her future. She plans to work in construction, volunteer at the 2010 Olympics and indulge her passion for travel. Not until that’s done does she expect to get serious about life. Medical school is a possibility. So is becoming an athletic trainer or fitness club owner.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” she says, “which is why I’m going to travel and think about options. I don’t feel compelled to get a job right now.”

In that, Ms. Gerwing sees herself as not unlike her athlete friends. “I think for sure there’s a sense that once you are done with university, you can experience things and not feel pressure to make an immediate decision.”

PUBLISHED BY
Daniel Drolet
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