Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Canada’s education system: ‘a gift beyond compare’

Canada’s education system: ‘a gift beyond compare’

Indira Samarasekera, National Post

I became a Canadian citizen in 1980. Looking back over my life, I can see now how Canada became my chosen home. But while I was growing up in Sri Lanka, I had no idea – not even the glimmer of a premonition – that one day I would become a Canadian citizen.

In many ways, my childhood was ideal. I lived in a tropical paradise, full of warm and caring people. I was surrounded by a vibrant extended family that wrapped my childhood within a rich web of myth and mystery, and gave me a strong sense of community responsibility.

Sadly, that paradise was eventually spoiled by ethnic conflict and civil war. When I was six years old, my family and I nearly lost our lives escaping the race riots of 1958. The experience left me deeply conscious of the need to eradicate intolerance and bigotry from our midst.

By the early 1970s, when I was in my early twenties, I knew that my commitment to diversity and tolerance was under attack, and I began to seek an opportunity to leave. In 1975, I applied for and won a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of California, Davis. Newly married, my then-husband and I left Sri Lanka. About 18 months later, we found ourselves in Vancouver where I started my doctorate, and began what turned out to be my life as a Canadian.

Sri Lanka and my family gave me the foundational values on which my life rests, but Canada gave me the space and opportunity to achieve more than I could have imagined. It was here that I found my life’s work.

Although I am now president of the University of Alberta, I am by training an engineer, one with a definite pragmatic streak. For my doctorate, I wanted to tackle a practical research problem and I was aware that Canada was a major metals producer. I thought surely there must be interesting challenges in that field that would combine practical problems with academic rigour.

My suspicions were confirmed when I met Keith Brimacombe, a young professor at UBC, who pulled out a paper napkin from his desk drawer outlining a chronic problem plaguing Canada’s steel industry. Solving this challenge became the subject of my Ph.D. thesis and the launch of a tremendously rewarding academic and consulting career that opened doors into the steel industry in more than 20 countries, and made it possible for me to apply my talents to the fullest.

This is no small gift. Indeed, I consider it a gift beyond compare. One of Canada’s greatest strengths is its investment in unleashing the potential of every individual through education.

Canada’s public universities and its public school system provide world-class education to people regardless of their beginnings. I say this not because I am president of one of those universities, but because I am a fortunate beneficiary of that Canadian public education. It transformed my life and the lives of my two children. Like so many Canadians, I believe that we should not underestimate the power of education to uplift the lives of individuals and change society for the better.

It is such a privilege for me to now be in a position to give back to Canada through the very channel that has given me such personal and professional satisfaction and accomplishment.

My father had a great aunt named Mary Rutman who was a Canadian. A trained doctor, she arrived in Sri Lanka in 1895 (at that time, Ceylon) and found her life’s work. Among other things, she opened a hospital for women and mentored the first generation of female doctors. She led the charge for women’s right to vote and founded several educational organizations for girls and women. Sri Lanka fuelled Mary Rutman’s talents and passions, and she used those talents and passions to change Sri Lanka for the better.

Now, over a century later, Canada has fed my talents and passions as Sri Lanka once did for Mary Rutman. I find the symmetry of this bit of family history inspiring. It is now my hope that I can fully close the circle by serving my chosen country, and the country of Mary Rutman’s birth, Canada, with the energy and passion she once gave to her chosen country, and the country of my birth, Sri Lanka.

(This article originally appeared in the National Post and on their website on October 19, 2011.)

Dr. Indira Samarasekera is the president and vice chancellor of the University of Alberta. She earned her PhD in Metallurgical Engineering from the University of British Columbia.