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Alumna Joan Andersen on the value of education and the importance of giving back

Photo of: Joan AndersenAfter she retired as Honda Canada’s assistant vice president of human resources and administration in 2013, Joan Andersen (BA 1976, MA 1977) began channeling her energy and experience into philanthropy, as both a donor and a mentor in the Faculty’s Backpack to Briefcase (b2B) Program. She spoke about the value of education in living a satisfying and rewarding personal and professional life, as well as the importance of giving back, at the annual Arts & Science Scholarship Reception on April 2, 2014.

The reception celebrates the academic achievements of Arts & Science students, 1,742 of whom received a donor-funded award in 2013, and it pays tribute to the families, donors and faculty who are inspiring them.


Daughter of Danish immigrants

Let’s start with a few details about my story  I am the daughter of two immigrants who came to Canada from Denmark in the early 1950s in search of a better life for themselves and their future family. I’m also the first in my family to earn a university degree. I attribute that to my parents, who like many of you present today, believed that the road to ensuring their children had a better life than they did was education and specifically, a focus on academic excellence. That’s how, like those students we are honouring today, I entered U of T on a scholarship.

Now, we hear a lot today about the importance of pursuing studies that prepare us for a specific career. Let me give you my spin on this I never had any clear image of my future career during my studies. I did however have lots of maybes. I studied for the sheer joy of learning, and took advantage of every opportunity that came my way, especially those that forced me to move outside my comfort zone.

Studied for the sheer joy of learning

Let me give you one example. In my third year of German studies, two of my professors approached me with the idea of completing one of my course credits by acting in a German play. At the time, I was so afraid of my own shadow that I could barely make a presentation in class let alone on stage. While it would have been easier to say no and explain that this was beyond my ability, my professors and parents convinced me to give it a try and so it came to pass that I ended up in the starring role of two small German plays. Walking through that door and embracing that opportunity resulted in developing significant competencies which later made it possible for me to become a teaching assistant while pursuing my master’s degree, and to continue to pursue my passion for teaching throughout my entire life and even in retirement.

Education: Not necessarily preparation for a specific career

This brings me to an important conclusion which I have reached about the value of education: for many of us, it’s not about learning in preparation for a specific career it’s more about focusing on the soft or transferable skills which we learn in the course of pursuing our studies, which can be applied to a myriad of jobs or careers. I’m talking about skills such as planning and organizing, research, analysis, communication and even leadership in terms of participating in university life. The bottom line for me is that the success and fulfillment which I have achieved in my life is a direct result of my education, and specifically the University of Toronto. Wherever I have gone around the world, the mention of being a graduate of this institution has garnered immediate respect and opened many doors for me. This university is recognized worldwide as a prestigious educational institution.

A three-pronged “winning partnership”

I believe that this recognition has developed over the years as a result of what I call a three-pronged “winning partnership”:

One: A great faculty who are dedicated to sharing knowledge and wisdom, and inspiring students, many of whom will become the next generation of academics.

Two: Great alumni dedicated to ensuring the continuity of this institution through involvement and giving back.

Three: Great students such as those of you present today, who, supported by your proud parents and family, are dedicated to learning and taking excellence to the next level.

The importance of giving back

And, that brings me to my final point about the importance of giving back. As I approached retirement a few years ago, my life came full circle, and I began to understand the very real need to give back so future students could benefit from a world class education the way that I did. And, I began to consider how I could give back. I decided to participate in the b2B Program, to act as a mentor when called upon, to donate money and to include this university in my will. We can no longer count on taxpayers, students and their families to foot the bill for post-secondary education.

Two-part challenge for students

So I will end my comments with a two-part challenge to the students in the audience:

One: Pursue your studies with passion and when you graduate, commit to using your knowledge to strive for excellence in your personal and professional lives.

Two: In the future, take the torch which the current alumni will pass to you, and remember to give back in your own way and time.

Congratulations on your achievement and best wishes for a bright and fulfilling future!

Andersen’s remarks have been edited for length.