Written by Emily Nunez, Undergraduate Thesis Student In mid-September, I received an e-mail from Janet Doner, Manager of Community Engagement and Global Citizenship at the University of Guelph, inviting me to be part of a small group of students to have a conversation with the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Elizabeth Dowdeswell. Her Honour had specifically requested to meet with a group of students who are engaged in a variety of initiatives on and off-campus, and I was fortunate enough to have been recommended by staff and faculty members.
On Tuesday September 27th, I entered the Aboriginal Resource Centre to find the group of students sitting on the couch, along with Janet Doner and Charlotte Yates, the Provost and Vice President (Academic). Janet had arranged for the group of students to meet for a few minutes before Her Honour’s arrival. I was surprised to recognize two of the students in the room; a teaching assistant from a first year seminar course I had taken on politics and the environment, and a student from the last cohort of the Certificate in Civic Engagement and Global Citizenship that I am also taking.
We began by going around the circle introducing ourselves by name, program and primary organization that we are currently involved with. When it was my turn, I still hadn’t fully decided which of my engagement opportunities would be considered my primary organization: the College of Biological Science Student Council, Certificate in Civic Engagement and Global Citizenship, UofMosaic Fellowship, the Cross-Cultural Tolerance pilot course, The Harper Lab? I chose an organization, and also voiced how challenging it was to choose a single association to speak on behalf of. The other students in the room agreed, and Janet noted that perhaps we should list all of our current organizations, as we were after all selected due to our multiple engagements on-campus and in the community.
A few minutes after later, there was a flurry of movement in the hallway by the main entrance of the centre. From the doorway emerged three people in business attire carrying clipboards and a camera, a military Aide de Camp, and finally, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.
She smiled warmly and approached our circle. She made her way around to each of us, and we introduced ourselves to her and shook her hand. After she sat down, everyone in the circle summarized their main campus and community engagement experiences since we began at the University of Guelph. It was fascinating to hear about the diversity of leadership experiences my fellow peers have had throughout their time on this campus—they ranged from leading voter engagement campaigns to mentoring first year varsity athletes to being actively involved in the Muslim Students’ Association.
Her Honour then commented on how involved University of Guelph students appear to be in comparison to the average university-aged student. She then asked us whether we believed that volunteer-oriented students were attracted to the University of Guelph, or whether the University of Guelph fostered an environment that encouraged community engagement and volunteerism. The answers were mixed, and very much drew from personal experiences. As I spoke from my own personal experience, I explained how I was drawn to the University of Guelph’s sustainability and community-oriented programs, initiatives and research. A large part of the reason I chose Guelph was the multitude of opportunities to get involved on-campus and in the community, and the resources available to support students in doing so.
During the last part of the meeting, we asked Her Honour if she could briefly share the path that she took to become the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. She laughed and warned us that her story was anything but linear and predictable.
Ms. Dowdeswell was born in Northern Ireland and immigrated to rural Saskatchewan with her parents in 1947. Her academic background is in home economics, teaching and behavioural sciences. She began her professional career as a teacher and university lecturer. Ms. Dowdeswell served as the Deputy Minister of Culture and Youth for the Government of Saskatchewan, after which time she held increasingly senior positions in the Canadian public surface. This included being the first female head of the Atmospheric Environment Service in the world, and the first non-meteorologist in the world to hold the position.
Ms. Dowdeswell then served as Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, during which time she chaired the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. She also served as Under-Secretary General of the United Nations in Nairobi, Kenya. Upon returning to Canada, she established and became the founding President and CEO of the international Nuclear Waste Management Organization. She was also CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies, and has served on numerous boards of corporate and non-profit organizations.
Today as the 29th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, she holds 11 honorary degrees and has received a number of high honours, including the Officer of the Order of Canada and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
When Janet asked if Her Honour had any advice for us young adults, she smiled, and told us to not be afraid to take on unfamiliar positions. She went on to say that whenever the opportunity for a new position or endeavor arose, she would ask herself how much she knew about the subject. If the answer was “not much”, she would be much more apt to take the position than if she had significant experience in the area. She went on to say that, although there is a great need for experts in specific areas, there is also a need for people who have general knowledge and experience in a number of different areas.
Although the meeting was brief, only about 40 minutes in length, I walked out of the Aboriginal Resource Centre feeling inspired and rejuvenated. As I am nearing the end of my undergraduate degree, I also found this experience to be a valuable opportunity for me to reflect back on how my extra-curricular experiences have impacted my values, interests and perspective on the world. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet such a successful, hardworking and inspiring woman, and to have connected with some incredibly involved students on our campus.