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Concordia’s spring 2019 honorands describe a turning point in their lives

From riding a train through the Himalayas to learning to fly, the 10 distinguished recipients recall their formative educational experiences
May 22, 2019
Aimee Mullins: "We need to give students the space and time to daydream, to be curious, to create." | Photo: Lynn Johnson

At this year’s spring convocation, Concordia will welcome 10 new honorands who have made their mark in the fields of athletics, music direction, global conservation, education reform, business, space engineering and sculpture.

These distinguished individuals will address the university’s more than 6,000 graduates during ceremonies at Place des Arts from June 10 to 12.

In advance of their words of wisdom, we present Concordia’s spring honorands’ thoughts about cherished learning experiences that helped shape them.

Kent Nagano

Kent Nagano discovers Bach

The first chord hits me with full force, bouncing off the walls of the nave and filling the entire space within seconds. That chord, which so abruptly emanates from the organ, is potent, powerful, majestic. Nothing remains untouched by it; everyone can hear and feel it. My whole body feels it.

The vast space seems to resonate. That first sound penetrates deep into the farthest corner of the church, instantly charging the building with its tremendous energy, straining it to bursting point.

All of a sudden, a single voice separates itself, escapes the tension of that stunning chord, seems to run away from that group of notes, returns and beckons the next. That one, deeper, follows it. They chase each other, unite and part again. Suddenly, a third voice rings out. I gasp for air.

What’s this? I hear a play, a conversation. Sometimes like a chat, then again like serious talk. I now think back to that time, remembering that first chord, which shook me so deeply half a century ago. I see myself in our own church as a child, around five years of age and completely under the spell of that configuration of tones. It is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Kent Nagano will be conferred at a special ceremony.

Aimee Mullins

Aimee Mullins gets creative

When I was in seventh grade, my art teacher knew I was passionate about art, so he taught me how to forge his signature so I could sit in the art studio during study hall and just create.

I’m not advocating running around forging signatures — but I’m so grateful that he provided me with the space I needed to create. I learned from him that, in some cases, innovation can require the judicious breaking of a rule.

It’s amazing what an impact a teacher can have on the rest of your life. It sometimes makes good sense to favour creativity over rules. We need to give students the space and time to daydream, to be curious, to create.

Aimee Mullins will address the Faculty of Arts and Science on Monday, June 10, at 10 a.m.

Caroline Ouellette

Caroline Ouellette is pushed to excel at academics and athletics

My grade 10 math teacher, Jocelyne Pilote, had an incredible impact on me. She challenged me to work as hard in school as I did in any sport in which I competed.

Until then, I had been pretty lazy, just happy to get by with average grades. Yet I was a driven, competitive and hard-working athlete.

I shifted my mindset to excel at everything in which I participated. I finished the year with a 98 per cent grade average and was accepted into a police technology program in CEGEP.

Ms. Pilote was smart, strong, outspoken and fearless, and all the students feared and/or respected her. 

Caroline Ouellette will address the Faculty of Arts and Science on Monday, June 10, at 3 p.m.

Sylvia Schmelkes

Sylvia Schmelkes rises to the challenge

I would like to share a bad experience and a good one. Both helped me grow as a person who strives to better serve my fellow men and women.

I am a very clumsy person. When I was around 10 years old, in my Girl Scouts group, I was having trouble with basket weaving. I remember my Scout leader telling me, “You must be good at something, but I have yet to discover what.”

This comment shocked me and it could have stunted my growth. However, belonging to a loving family helped me hold up my self-esteem. I instead decided to discover what I was good at, to explore different areas of development and to broaden my horizons.

The teacher I learned the most from taught me literature in high school — Mother Michel. She was strict and demanding and was diligent at correcting my mistakes and making me face ever-growing challenges.

Thanks to that, I learned to enjoy reading. She showed me to read critically, to go beyond the obvious, to take every opportunity to be reflective and develop my own thinking and to be creative. She is still my model for teaching.

Sylvia Schmelkes will address the Faculty of Arts and Science on Monday, June 10, at 3 p.m.

Kamaljit Bawa

Kamaljit Bawa rides the slow train to a world of biodiversity

The moment that most affected my life, affected my work, affected almost everything I do and I live for, was my first visit to the eastern part of the Himalayas as a botany graduate student in India.

The first day, I took this very small, slow-moving train from the plains of India to the mountains. It went through a tropical forest that was incredibly diverse. Everywhere I looked around me I saw vibrant life of all forms, colourful flowers, beautiful birds, amazing diversity. Every tree I saw belonged to a different species.

I found out later that I was passing through one of the greatest hotspots of biodiversity, which is incredibly rich in the number of species and those that occur nowhere else on earth. I was like a kid in a toy store. It was a wonderful moment. It was to affect my life for years to come.

All I wanted to then do was study this diversity of life. Why are some places more diverse than others? How is this diversity generated? How is it maintained? How has it evolved?

Later in my life I came to realize that this diversity of life is highly vulnerable to human impact. And then I devoted the last half of my career to how to save this biodiversity — this incredible rich supply that sustains humanity.

Kamaljit Bawa will address the Faculty of Arts and Science on Monday, June 10, at 7:30 p.m.

Peter Simons

Peter Simons meets a mentor

My most formative learning experience, in terms of mentorship, involved sports. I happened to cross someone who took interest in me, Steve Pound, who was my basketball coach at Quebec High School for five years.

Steve came to Quebec City to finish his doctorate after playing semi-pro basketball. He went on to be in the school’s administration, but he was always deeply involved in the basketball program as a coach.

He had a great understanding of equilibrium — the importance of balancing studies and sports. Not only did it help me grow as a person but I saw how much pleasure that he took, and still takes today, in following and helping young kids.

Steve gave me a really great appreciation for mentorship, for teaching and for the importance of education.

Peter Simons, C.M., C.Q., will address the John Molson School of Business on Tuesday, June 11, at 10 a.m.

Louis Vachon

Louis Vachon finds his passion

Probably the most influential professor I had was Ted Walters in my freshman year at Bates College in Maine. He taught Economics 102, a macroeconomics class in my second semester.

In our curriculum, we had to read a novel called The Billion Dollar Sure Thing, written by Paul Erdman, who was a banker.

We were assigned the novel because it was a financial thriller. Aside from the story itself, it did a good job of explaining the workings of the international monetary system in the 1970s and early ’80s.

When I read that book, I fell in love with the intellectual challenge of international finance and banking. Since that time, international finance has been my track from a professional standpoint — and it’s also been a personal passion. On a daily basis, I continue to enjoy what I do very much.

Louis Vachon, C.M., will address the John Molson School of Business on Tuesday, June 11, at 3 p.m.

Éric Martel

Éric Martel discovers the value of teamwork

I have been fortunate to work in different fields throughout my career: engineering, procurement, human resources and continuous improvement, to name a few. These opportunities have enriched and enhanced my career path.

Before entering the job market, I was a cadet, and I served as a reservist for the Canadian Armed Forces. These experiences created the basis for my approach to professional ethics and management.

I learned about diligence and resilience and, above all, teamwork. I like to say that a leader must create energy in a team, and not the other way around.

For this to happen, it is important to show genuine interest in your colleagues and employees, to listen to them, to develop strategies based on a common rallying objective and to provide them with the tools they need to succeed.

In my opinion, this is the difference between being a leader and being a boss.

Éric Martel will address the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science on Wednesday, June 12, at 10 a.m.

Natalie Panek

Natalie Panek learns to fly

I set a personal goal during university to obtain a pilot’s license. The lure of flying was the promise of freedom — the beauty of a different perspective.

But taking the leap to enrol in ground school took a lot of self-convincing. I was afraid that I did not have what it takes to be a pilot. I was intimidated and scared, particularly to be surrounded by people who might know more than I did.

Despite the fear, I signed up anyway. And after weeks of ground school and a number of in-flight lessons with an instructor, the time came for my first solo flight.

Here I was, alone in an airplane, enjoying the foothills and mountains with a light dusting of fresh snow. I kept thinking that in just a few hours I would arrive back home in Calgary to tell my parents that I had just flown to Vulcan, Red Deer and back — by myself!

My confidence skyrocketed after that flight. And I have held onto that feeling and that memory as a reminder of how courage can balance vulnerability in moments outside one’s comfort zone.

Natalie Panek will address the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science on Wednesday, June 12, at 3 p.m.

Gilles Mihalcean

Gilles Mihalcean commence sa formation

La première sculpture que j’ai réalisée, en 1970, a été primée la même année aux Concours artistiques du Québec ; elle fut acquise par le Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal et exposée l’année suivante au Musée Rodin à Paris.

J’étais devenu sculpteur et, à partir de ce moment-là, j’ai commencé ma formation.

Des rencontres avec une multitude d’artistes d’ici m’ont permis de comprendre, d’apercevoir et de matérialiser les sculptures poétiques et narratives qui flânaient en moi. Alfred Pellan, Ulysse Comtois et Roland Poulin ont fait partie de ces révélateurs.

J’ai tenté d’habiter notre part de siècle en y faisant valoir nos traits singuliers et nos efforts d’invention. La sculpture est, pour moi, un appareil de terre et de culture.

Gilles Mihalcean will address the Faculty of Fine Arts on Wednesday, June 12, at 7:30 p.m.

Find out more about Concordia’s spring 2019 convocation ceremonies.


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