In this issue, Trek is exploring the topic of migration. I have a particular interest in this topic, both as the president of an incredibly diverse university and as the child of immigrants.
I was born in Vancouver in 1962, some years after my father and mother had emigrated from Japan to North America with little more than a suitcase. At the time, my father was a professor of mathematics at UBC. We didn’t stay long in Vancouver. During my childhood, my family moved first to Philadelphia, where my father taught at the University of Pennsylvania, and then to Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University.
My own academic career has taken me to three different countries – Canada, the United States and England. I have not only lived in and experienced different cultures, I have had the privilege of meeting people from all over the world, and I learned a lot from them. My travels also had an unexpected bonus; it was while studying at McGill University in Montreal that I met my wife, Wendy.
But travel for work or study also brings disruptions and requires a degree of adjustment.
Even coming back to Vancouver, after many years away from the city of my birth, required adjustments, and I don’t just mean needing to pack extra rain gear! Or adjusting to the fact that Canadians seem to be more interested in hockey than in college football and basketball.
I encountered different values, different attitudes, even different food. I had to learn what was meant by poutine and a double-double. More seriously, my daughter had to adjust to a new school with a very different curriculum. And we had to make new friends and say goodbye to old ones. But over time, we made those adjustments. We made new friends and discovered new neighbourhoods.
And now, as president and vice-chancellor of UBC – which was recently ranked the most international university in North America – I have the honour to lead a very diverse institution. Our faculty, students and staff come from many different countries around the world – more than 160 – bringing with them different cultural, socio-economic, and political perspectives.
Leading such a diverse institution brings challenges. As university administrators, we have to be aware that our international students face pressures in addition to the normal ones that all students face: being far from their homes, their families and their friends; adapting to a different culture and perhaps a different language; and getting used to different ways of studying and learning. Some may have visa, funding or health care issues, as well.
As an institution, we must be welcoming and do our utmost to accommodate religious observances, dietary restrictions, and social and cultural mores. As scholarship becomes more global and the university more diverse, this becomes ever more important. But these are good challenges to have. Countries, cultures, individuals, and institutions such as UBC benefit from immigration and emigration.
Not only does UBC attract international students, but our faculty, staff and students are able to take advantage of opportunities outside of Canada – enriching those institutions with their UBC experiences. Right now, of course, such opportunities are on hold, and most of our international students are taking their classes virtually. But they are still a vital part of our community, and their participation enriches us all. Someday, when the pandemic is over, we look forward to welcoming them back in person.
As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, pointed out: Those who are different from me do not impoverish me – they enrich me. Our unity is constituted in something higher than ourselves – in Humanity.