Bonnie Patterson, president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities, told graduands of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies that her university experience led to choices in her life that she wouldn’t have had otherwise. “It allowed me to fail, to discover, to learn, to excel and, quite frankly, to figure out what was important to me.”
But that was almost not the case. “University was not on my radar screen when I was in high school. Having left home at 16, I was focused on my part-time job, paying my room and board, and finding a full-time job after high school,” said Patterson, who received an honorary doctor of laws degree during York’s Fall Convocation. What changed? A teacher asked her: “What university are you thinking about attending?”
That, said, Patterson, challenged her thinking. “It dared me to dream.” Her learning in life has been both formal and informal. The world today faces critical challenges, not only the global economy, but civil society. She challenged graduands, telling them, “As individuals, we must accept that we have a personal responsibility to learn more in a global context.”
Patterson called her early international experiences “game changers.” “They set the context for my interest [in] and commitment to the internationalization of our universities today and ensuring the opportunity for international student experiences.”
One of the experiences happened while she was living and travelling in North Africa and continental Europe in her undergrad years. Patterson spent months searching the Libyan Desert in a camel caravan for a friend’s wife who entered a medina stall in Tunis and never came out. The woman’s husband searched for years in vain. Patterson and friends “had to bribe their way out of Algeria when several attempts to cross the border into Morocco were unsuccessful and our passports were confiscated.”
Another more recent experience involved her volunteer work with a foundation that helps girls in Masai Mara, Kenya, get an education and stay in school. After a teacher’s strike when the girls were sent home, many didn’t return. They had been married off for dowry, some as young as 11. It reminded her that, here in North America, “what we accept here as given does not apply in other parts of the world.”
“Those experiences, whether from the early ’70s or more recent, are constant reminders of what we sometimes take for granted in the Western world,” said Patterson.
And her learning has never stopped. “Working in a university provided me a dynamic environment in which to learn something every day,” she said. “I am continuously inspired by the students I meet. I’ve learned from those I’ve taught and been consistently impressed by the commitment and intellect of faculty within our universities and the people who devote their lives to student success.”
One of the top things she’s learned in her career is the importance of relationship management, whether it’s up the line, peer to peer or with those working with or for you. “The tenets of success in those working relationships are the same: respect, integrity, using the attributes of leadership that embrace kindness and courage, taking informed risks, and applying your knowledge and judgment,” she said.
She also told graduands to venture outside of their comfort zone, engage in continuous learning and find their passion. “Finding the passion in what you do is a critical success factor – whether in your career or in your life,” said Patterson.
Quoting Winston Churchill, she said: “Never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”