Letter from Calgary

Full marks for fortitude

For a single mother and her fellow grads, university has been a lesson in perseverance

MARY NEMETH July 5 1993
Letter from Calgary

Full marks for fortitude

For a single mother and her fellow grads, university has been a lesson in perseverance

MARY NEMETH July 5 1993

Full marks for fortitude

Letter from Calgary

For a single mother and her fellow grads, university has been a lesson in perseverance

The band strikes up a processional as the University of Calgary’s gowned graduates file into the gymnasium, glancing up from beneath their mortarboards to catch glimpses of family and friends. In the brightly lit bleachers, camera flashes flicker and parents jump up to wave as familiar faces come into view. The graduates have one last lecture to sit through—a convocation address by film-maker Norman Jewison. “Don’t compromise yourself, don’t stop fighting for what you believe,” he exhorts the crowd. “Making money is not what it’s all about.” Lofty words from a man with job worries behind him. But for the moment, anxiety—about work, student loans, the future—is overshadowed by a palpable excitement. Like students across the country, those graduating here are celebrating the end of exams and all-nighters, and are contemplating the beginning of real life. Says management graduate Patti Jackson, 22:

“It’s kind of scary and emotional.”

The graduates tell stories of comradeship and despair, hard work and reward.

Few have struggled harder than 34-yearold Barbara Clarke. After Clarke left her husband in the late 1980s, she embarked on a life as a single mother of three young boys. Although she had earned a degree in geology from the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 1982, she had spent much of her married life working as a fulltime mother—and, in the depressed Oil Patch of the 1990s, faced almost certain unemployment. Determined to forge a better future, she enrolled in Calgary’s bachelor of education program. Last month, she was invited to a chancellor’s luncheon in recognition of her extraordinary grade point average: 3.95 out of a possible 4. “I don’t know how I got through sometimes—every once in a while I needed some help getting those boxing gloves strapped back on,” says Clarke. “But I did it.”

So did Kim Lu, 26, a general studies graduate specializing in tourism who emigrated from Vietnam in 1979. “I was new in Canada,” says Lu. “When I first said I wanted to go to university, my father thought I was a dreamer.” Now, she is handling the Taiwanese market for a tour operator in Banff. “I thought university was difficult, but then I started work,” she says with a laugh. “It’s horrendous. It’s harder than university, but I enjoy it”

Lu is among the lucky ones, employed in her field straight out of school. In fact, this year’s graduates are entering a job market much different from the one their parents first encountered. “Their choices are remarkably broader,” says Joy Calkin, Calgary’s vice-president (academic). “There’s a smorgasbord

of things to do. Yet the challenge of getting to those choices is much greater.”

For many graduates at Calgary’s convocation, university was an opportunity to pick and choose from the smorgasbord— learning about their courses and themselves. As a high-school student, Kevin Weiler wanted to be an architect. But nine years ago, while playing hockey, he was knocked headfirst into the boards and suffered a paralysing spinal cord injury. That led him into social work. “I think it was the disabled rebound thing—‘I’m coping so I’ll help everyone else,’ ” he says. But Weiler, now 25, tired of the program and switched to psychology. Later, he settled on a degree in communications, and is now planning to study law. “In university you filter out and find a focus,” says Weiler, sipping a soft drink in his wheelchair just before convocation. “If university can do that for you, you’ve accomplished something.”

Of the University of Calgary’s 18,093 full-time and 4,502 part-time students, nearly 300 are disabled. Another 28 per cent, like Clarke, are over the age of 24. The school has distinguished itself by smoothing the path for nontraditional students, providing drop-in lunches for those who feel out of place in the youthful environment, seminars on writing essays and exams and counselling on how to balance the demands of family and school.

Clarke made ample use of those services as she struggled to survive on about $12,000 a year. That included a combination of loans, scholarships and grants for disadvantaged students, as well as occasional support payments from her former husband, who was sometimes unemployed. She took advantage of subsidized day care and low rent: her townhouse in an on-campus family housing complex was a modest $500 a month. Still, money was tight. Once, Clarke recalls, “I had to sell some furniture for food.” And now, as she waits for replies from school boards across Alberta and British Columbia, she faces the prospect of repaying $16,000 in loans. “At times, I felt envious of classmates who have husbands with jobs,” she says. “They could drop out tomorrow and life would go on. But I didn’t spend a lot of time on that. I have three healthy children. I’ve been gifted with abilities. I could be worse off.”

Clarke’s campus townhouse is cluttered with job applications and résumés, toys and bicycles. On the wall, beside several inspirational quotes about teaching, are paintings, in bright reds and blues, by her sons Stephen, 8, and Edward, 6. As she talks, she cradles her youngest, three-year-old Jeffrey, in her arms. When she left her husband, she recalls, employment prospects were bleak. “There weren’t many jobs,” she says, “and the few that there were, they would rather hire a man— and certainly not a woman on her own with children.” She decided to study education, partly, she says, because “teaching is predominantly women—and there’s more of an acceptance that you could be a mother.” Still, she almost failed to make it through her first semester. “I had a paper to write,” she recalls. “I didn’t know how to begin. I sat in the library and I felt like the whole weight of my family was resting on my shoulders.” She panicked. “I knew this was it,” she says. “I thought, T cannot write this paper, I’m going to fail this course. I might as well go home and pack because, if I’m not a student, we’ll have to leave student housing.’ ”

Clarke survived that ordeal: she wrote the paper—and got an A-minus. Later, she took seminars on study habits and essay writing and developed an efficient system—“study, do the dishes, study, do laundry, study.” But sometimes the children threw her a curve. This past winter, when she and all three boys had the flu, Stephen came down with chicken pox. “He was as sick as a dog for two weeks— then the next two kids got them,” says Clarke. “I was at the breaking point.” But family and friends pitched in to help. “I would have failed had I not had the children’s grandparents, and friends willing to look after these sick kids,” she says. “I’m a single parent in the sense that I don’t live with my husband,” she adds. “But I have a tremendous support system.”

Now, Clarke is anxiously awaiting replies to the 85 résumés she has sent out—hoping that all the work and self-sacrifice will pay off. She is not alone. Before convocation, standing with hundreds of graduates, Brad Gibson is sounding a bit discouraged. “I can hang my degree above the bell desk at the hotel where I work,” says Gibson, 23. A graduate of the management faculty’s tourism program who has sent his résumé to 30 employers across the province, Gibson speaks enviously of his classmate, Keith Gilchrist, also 23, who was just hired as an assistant manager by a technology transfer company. “He’s got a real job,” says Gibson. “I lift bags.” Filing out of the gymnasium, Gibson and his fellow graduates enter a world in which knowing how to fight the odds may prove as valuable as the new letters behind their names.

MARY NEMETH