President & Vice-Chancellor Address

Spring Convocation 2008

Welcome everyone to today’s convocation.

During a recent press conference announcing significant contributions for our newly established Opportunity Fund, one of our students and a bursary recipient from that fund, a young man named Muuxi Adam, shared his story. The only member of his family to survive the civil war in Somalia, he expressed the strong conviction that coming to Canada and going to The University of Winnipeg was, for him, nothing short of a miracle.

Now, some of you may think of a miracle as being a short speech from the University president, and I assure you I’ll try to work a little magic for those of you who feel that way. But Muuxi’s declaration made me stop to think why he would use the word miracle as it applies to education, to his presence here at The University of Winnipeg, in this city, and in this country.

Normally a miracle exists in the realm of theology or spiritualism. It is an event that could not have been predicted or explained by natural or historical circumstances. To our eyes, nothing in Muuxi’s childhood, or in his background, or in the probable trajectory of his life as a young person in the middle of a brutal civil war could ever have predicted that he would be on the path he is today.

Muuxi is now a promising filmmaker and is working with the National Film Board to create a film about gangs called Ray of Hope. He has overcome the barriers of language and has learned to live with the heartbreak of losing his family. Despite the tragedies there are now genuine prospects for success and prosperity in the new life he is building in our city. Given all of these circumstances, one can begin to understand the use of the language of miracles.

By definition, a miracle is unexpected; and even hoping for one can be seen as unrealistic and unreasonable. And yet, it happened for Muuxi. And each and every one of you who will cross this stage today, accepting a degree, signifying your passage as a graduate of higher learning are in a real sense participating in this miracle.

Perhaps for many of us who have not had to face hardships such as this, education seems a much more achievable goal. But, we cannot deny that it is at the very least a precious gift in the innumerable opportunities it brings for fulfillment and success.

But all things precious are also vulnerable. This was painfully driven home for us when an unknown person wrote a threatening note against the University community on a bathroom wall last fall. While this security threat gave us all a very difficult time, we witnessed during that period an amazing coming together of University faculty, staff and students and those living and working in our community. We all recognized how important it is to work hard to preserve and protect the special place called a university; a place where the miracle of learning is valued, cherished and protected.

The University has moved forward. We have gone on. And these events did not impede the success of our students, faculty and staff in their pursuit of excellence.

  • Aaron Trachtenberg, a 2007 graduate, became the University’s 30th Rhodes Scholar and is now preparing for Oxford and a promising career in neuroscience.
  • Ben Schellenberg ends his time at this institution as our UW Male Athlete of the Year and, among many other achievements, as the 2008 Canada West Men’s Volleyball MVP, a CIS Men’s Volleyball Player of the Year, and a five-time Academic All-Canadian.
  • Ashley McKague, after serving for three years on our Board of Regents is graduating with a degree in education. She is preparing to apply her skills and experience to her new role as a kindergarten teacher in the fall.
  • Ian Alexander is off to medical school, leaving this institution with a degree in biochemistry. He spent a number of years serving as a Resident Assistant, welcoming rural and international students to The University of Winnipeg and planning events and potlucks to bring together the community of over 170 students who live in residence.
  • Maureen Babb used her time here to research the “Heatherington Collection”, hundreds of artefacts from Egypt which had received little attention prior to her work. Maureen will apply her passion for archaeology to a graduate program at Trent University in the fall.
  • Harun Kibirige, a student originally from Uganda, served as President of the Muslim Students’ Association and as Arts Director for the UWSA while studying for his degree in business. He will soon enter a Chartered Accountant program while working concurrently with Deloitte and Touche.
  • And Natalie Allard’s degree in kinesiology and applied health was supported by the Great West Life Incentive Award for Aboriginal students. Natalie hopes to bring her skills and experience to a graduate program in occupational therapy or physical therapy in the near future.

This year we have continued to respond with new initiatives designed to create miracles for those living in our neighbourhood who might not otherwise be able to attend University.  We are trying to sustain an environment in which opportunities can continue to find realization for people from all walks of life and all parts of the world as they come to our province and our city.

This is why we established the Opportunity Fund to increase the participation rates of inner-city and Aboriginal youth, refugees, and immigrants from war-affected countries. The Fund’s unique credit-account programs start engaging students at the Grade 4 level, allowing them to earn tuition credits through their participation in our Innovative Learning Centre’s educational initiatives. The Fund also includes a micro-credit loan option and fast-track bursaries – the kind that helped Muuxi and 99 other students last year.

Our Innovative Learning Centre’s Eco-Kids and Enviro-Techs programs serve to plant the seeds of higher education in the minds of children long before they come to the University. During the school year we use the resources and infrastructure of our University to engage hundreds of inner-city youth in fun science-based educational activities.  The work of the ILC serves as a “tap on the shoulder” for these students who often don’t see high school graduation, let alone a university education, on their horizon.

We are now preparing for an influx of upwards of 1000 inner-city children to our Eco-U summer camp program, an initiative that will provide these young people with a positive summer camp experience and the chance to learn about sustainability in all of its manifestations. It will also create 35 summer jobs that will allow the youth of our inner-city neighbourhood to become camp leaders and the students of our Faculty of Science to gain experience as instructors.

Part of what it means to be human is to search out our path in life and to find an appropriate place where we can exercise our strengths, our talents and our skills. It is education that empowers us to do this; to engage ourselves fully in the real world in purposeful, rewarding and transformative ways. Education is transformative, not only for individuals but also for the local and global communities that surround them. And one of the traditional values of this University is its belief that this opportunity must belong to everyone.  It is not a place for the chosen few.

Education, then, is in a very deep sense a life-changing experience. And it is brought about only through the collective efforts of family, friends, professors, taxpayers, governments, community organizations and the private sector. Not least among the contributors to this essential process is the contribution of individual citizens.

One of the principal reasons for commencement addresses is to find a few moments in the day’s excitement and impatience, and the anxiety about where the next step will be in work or graduate school, to stop and reflect that one of the highest and fondest hopes of gaining and sharing the miracle of higher education is that it carries with it the obligation to be a good citizen, adding to the values of democracy and equality to move human kind to a new place.  It is the call of public service without which we cannot survive.

William Faulkner in a commencement address to the graduating class of Pine Manor Junior College said “what’s wrong with this world is it’s not finished yet. It is not completed to the point where man can put his final signature to the job and say: “It is finished. We made it and it works.”

The world is not finished yet and indeed the task in some ways grows more difficult. We still have hanging over us the shadow of a world where nuclear weapons proliferation presents the possibilities of extinction, where climate change is already challenging the world with convulsions that threaten untold changes on our collective well being, where a group of dictators in Burma can forestall the aid necessary to keep hundreds of thousands alive, and where our global system of governance is paralyzed because we hide behind outmoded notions of national sovereignty.

We are painfully aware of the reality of poverty and discrimination that still exist in our own community, barring the way for many of our young people to aspire to higher education where their talents can be put to work for their own betterment and that of the whole society.

I cherish the ardent hope that your education will encourage each and every one of you to dedicate your talents, energy and idealism to the task of what Faulkner called “finishing the world.”

And also to give voice to the demand that we as Canadians have a special vocation borne of our history, our values, our privilege, to be more than just a minor player in the global community we occupy; that we restore to our international role the kind of moral leadership that gives full strength to our combined talents. We must use our privileged position and our creative powers to find peaceful, equitable solutions to aid the world we live in – to bring about more of the miracles that Muuxi spoke of.

We can look to inspiration from our faculty and alumni. We honour during this convocation weekend:  

  • Claudia Wright, for her nearly 40 years of leadership as a faculty member and administrator, and for her commitment to human rights and multiculturalism.
  • Vesna Milosevic-Zdjelar, for her dedication to education and community service which led to the creation of science outreach programs for the young students in our inner-city neighbourhood. 
  • Michael Benarroch, for his leadership in developing our innovative new Faculty of Business and Economics and for his active contributions to many other university initiatives.
  • Athar Ata, for his outstanding work as an associate professor of chemistry which has motivated countless students toward academic excellence.
  • And Earl Backman, our distinguished alumnus, for his 35 years in Manitoba’s public service, and his important contributions as the originating CEO of the Brandon Regional Health Authority.

We can also look for inspiration in our honorary degree recipients who have made enormous contributions, each in their own way, to the creation of miracles.

  • Mohinder Singh Dhillon’s deep dedication to Canada’s Indo-Canadian community and to promoting understanding between our cultural communities, has moved us towards a more just and tolerant world.
  • Sharon Hope Irwin has made a difference in the lives of countless children and families through her lifelong commitment to young people with special needs and to advancing inclusive childcare practices.
  • John Langstaff’s contributions to pharmaceutical research and development have had immeasurable effects on those suffering from sickness and disease.
  • James A. Richardson’s philanthropic leadership and generosity and his dedication to the work of conservation is an exemplar for corporate social responsibility.
  • And just a few days ago as part of our convocation week we gave an honorary degree to the President of Ukraine, Victor Yuchshenko, who led the Orange Revolution in that country and today continues his crusade for democracy and tolerance.

While we celebrate this convocation and the achievements of this institution, it is also a time to remember those who have passed away. We were all deeply saddened by the death of George Tomlinson, who served for many years as a faculty member in our Chemistry Department and as a senior administrator. We mourned the loss of Wayne Christianson, a long-time faculty member at the Collegiate and dedicated member of our University community. And we also grieved the loss of a student who attended our Collegiate and who was in her second year of studies at the University. It is an unspeakable tragedy when a young life leaves us too soon.

Graduates, you leave here with the enhancement of an education that gives you a new way of looking at the world; a new verve that will give you a fresh insight and new ways of acting in defining the nature of your citizenship in a global community. That is the miracle we celebrate today.

I would like to leave you with a quote from poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who said that the genius of his friend William Wordsworth was: " give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand."

These words, which were originally descriptive of the poetry of William Wordsworth, are also an apt definition of education at its best. Authentic and empowering education pushes us past the boundaries of the ordinary and the conventional so that we can experience the world with fresh eyes, with open ears and with willing hearts, generating a new vision for the future along with the energy and joy that allows us to transform the world around us.

Graduates, I am confident that as you move beyond The University of Winnipeg and along your respective paths, you will have the courage to nurture a vision for a more just and sustainable world and to turn it into reality in the years to come.

You have in your hands the making of many more miracles. 

Thank you.