Appetite for small connections has big impact


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For many, January is a time of renewal and self-reflection, of looking back at the year that was and setting goals for the year to come. One thing I try to keep in mind is that resiliency and flexibility are intertwined: no one can predict the future, and we must be able to adapt to circumstance — bend, before we break.

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For many, January is a time of renewal and self-reflection, of looking back at the year that was and setting goals for the year to come. One thing I try to keep in mind is that resiliency and flexibility are intertwined: no one can predict the future, and we must be able to adapt to circumstance — bend, before we break.

This was driven home to me just before Christmas, when Kris and I had planned to fly to southern Ontario for part of the break to visit with family and friends. Madie, our youngest, was to fly in and meet us there. The two older ones were with their respective partner’s families. Like many other Canadians, we found that the weather had other ideas.

We spent approximately 24 hours at the Winnipeg airport before learning our flight had been cancelled. One look around and we quickly realized we were the least inconvenienced travellers at Richardson International. With no young children in tow, and no urgency to our visit, we could literally get a hotel room across the street and the next morning could choose to return home instead of fighting for seats on possible replacement flights. My heart goes out to those whose travel included seeing ill loved ones, had little children, or were staying at airports for days on end. It made us appreciate how fortunate we are, and I hope our flexibility helped add a little slack to the system to accommodate others.

Back home, our cul de sac continued its tradition of sharing small gifts of food with our neighbours. This year our usual gift of “David’s Nuts ‘n’ Bolts” (you can never have enough garlic powder and Worcestershire sauce) was replaced by BU honey. After donating to various food banks, we received some jars of the fabulous campus-crafted honey that we shared up and down the street. It was a great hit and a reminder of the beauty of local solutions and community partnerships. We need to continue to think about ways we can help the environment, nature and each other.

The remainder of our time was spent walking three dogs, some shovelling, and making so much soup stock that we need our walk-out freezer (OK, our deck) to store it all. I’ve hinted to many on campus that this healthy, very low-sodium and all-natural product is ready to move.

Now that we are back in full swing for the new term, I’m delivering soup stock to happy customers and welcoming new students, including at winter orientation, where I addressed the 60 or so students who are starting in January. About five minutes before I was to join the students for lunch (there seems to be a food theme building in my column), Mayor Jeff Fawcett dropped by my office. The mayor has two sons starting their first in-person university classes at BU this month. While he couldn’t join for the meal, he generously spoke to the incoming students and had casual conversations with several. During my lunch, it was a privilege to get to know the students a bit better, and I made a couple of observations.

First, coming from a warm country to Manitoba in January is always a bit of a cold shock, no matter how prepared people think they are. This meeting with new students was the same day the Sun ran the story of our Mexican music student, her husband and two children who had arrived without warm-enough clothes. It touched my heart to see how many people quickly responded to our new student and her family, and it reminded me of the campus and community generosity that sprang forth after the Pacific Avenue apartment fire.

Second, I met with a student from Ukraine (less affected by cold shock). She and her mother had just arrived a few weeks ago — they are excited to be in Brandon and she is looking forward to taking classes at BU. It was a sad reminder that Vladimir Putin’s atrocities are about to enter their second year. But it again reminds us of our community’s positive reaction and the ways that local and even individual efforts can contribute to global solutions. I am glad BU set aside some funds to help support Ukrainian students; it is one less thing they should have to worry about given the disruption in their lives.

Winter orientation typically has a higher percentage of international students than the fall convocation, sometimes because of travel delays. I was impressed with the number of new international students who are staying with relatives who had previously moved to Brandon for work. In many cases students are staying with aunts and uncles. It is a great benefit to both. Students have less expenses and relatives are reminded daily of loved ones back home. One student I spoke to indicated that his family moved to Manitoba just before the pandemic shut down. He is thrilled to be here now to reunite with his family and study at BU.

Sometimes, however, there is less family or community. Recently, I was in a committee meeting and learned that the graduate student representative had come to BU from Brazil. Kris and I have visited the country, have fond memories, and I enjoyed reminiscing with the student. But she said that she hadn’t connected with much of a Brazilian community in Brandon. Coincidentally, just two days earlier I’d spoken with a music student who was performing at a special event for BU donors — this student had also come to BU (along with their partner and two children) from Brazil. Sometimes, the role of administrators like myself and the dean of music is to make the right introductions, and we’ve connected these two students each other. Small world indeed.

In last Thursday’s Sun, the front-page headline was about record-breaking immigration levels to the Wheat City. We’re proud to play our part in attracting international students — some with families of their own — and we’re thrilled that a thriving community of diverse newcomers provides so much of a welcome mat. The resilience shown by anyone who voyages huge distances to unfamiliar (and cold!) new countries is matched only by the generous flexibility of those who welcome them.

Diversity was on further display this month on campus, as BU celebrated the first National Ribbon Skirt Day. We were especially proud of the BU connection: BU chancellor Mary Jane McCallum played a key role in introducing the bill that made this day a reality. Having a private member’s bill pass both chambers of Parliament is a rare accomplishment. Go chancellor!

In other chancellor-related news, this past Thursday afternoon a longtime former chancellor of BU’s paid a visit to campus. It was wonderful to host Michael Decter for a Brandon launch of his debut book. “Shadow Life” is a propulsive thriller that was named one of 2022’s best books by CBC. Even better, it’s only the first of a planned trilogy.

While hopefully your 2023 will be less eventful than the gripping read in “Shadow Life,” every year brings twists and turns. However, I am heartened by the community togetherness that was so evident over the holiday season and in our first weeks back to campus. Let us embrace 2023. We should treat each other with kindness, welcome newcomers to our community and share some food and thoughts with a neighbour. Small connections have big impacts.

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