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Making a difference

A Q&A with Outstanding Community Service Award recipient Susan Rose

Campus and Community

By Michael Pickard

There are many good citizens in this province who support their favourite causes and chip in where needed.

Susan Rose is Memorial University’s 2019 Outstanding Community Service Award recipient.
Photo: Submitted

Statistically, we are among the most generous when it comes to charitable donations, and are known for our caring spirits.

But then there are those rare birds who give just about everything. Susan Rose, BA’82, B.Ed.’85, B.Sp.Ed.’87, for example. Ms. Rose has spent her life advocating for others, conducting critical research to guide public policy and speaking for under-represented groups.

She has been awarded both Pride Citizen of the Year and the Human Rights Award for Newfoundland and Labrador for various initiatives in research and education.

And she is this year’s recipient of Memorial University’s Outstanding Community Service Award.

MP: Tell me about your time as a student at Memorial. What stood out?

SR: I started at Grenfell, and with many other West Coast students, I eventually came to St. John’s.

Several professors were a great influence: people such as Brenda Flight, Larry Felt and Bert Rose. My time at Memorial allowed me to see many world views and gave me insight into what was happening elsewhere. Once I started to learn, I needed to know more, especially on the topic of human rights.

MP: Was teaching and special education a calling for you?

SR: Yes, it’s a true calling to work with people who have exceptionalities. I began by working in group homes, learning of their great value, and I enjoyed mentoring and monitoring behaviours. It was all about helping students believe in themselves, and helping them develop better relationships with their peers and families.

Over my teaching career, I’ve focused on understanding reasons for certain behaviours. For example, one child appeared so lost because of his inability to communicate. When I discovered how much he enjoyed music, it changed everything. I saw the value in letting him show me what was needed; at that point, we both grew.

“I have three degrees and I can’t spell – that doesn’t mean I can’t learn.”

I have three degrees and I can’t spell – that doesn’t mean I can’t learn. My struggles in school helped me become a more effective educator. Many times, students tune out and do not engage. If your self-esteem is in your boots, it will affect your potential and your whole life.

It was important to create safe and respectful learning environments. For some children, this was a huge challenge. Once students understood my expectations and observed that I valued their passions, the real learning began. The first year I taught in junior high, my class had 13 boys and two girls.

It was late October before I could begin teaching curriculum outcomes. We played various games like chess, until respectful communication was the norm. Some of my students became star chess players.

When a child has felt stupid for years because of a learning disability, and they become among the best chess players in the school, everything changes. Talk about self-esteem building!

MP: You eventually started working with LGBTQ2S kids. What were some of the roadblocks in the early days?

SR: A tremendous lack of understanding and ignorance. Messages come from many places, and it was part of my own journey, too.

It took until 1997 for the human rights code to be amended so that teachers were protected. I was tired of hiding and feeling invisible. Often students would point out that I did not have a picture of my family on my desk like other teachers did.

“Each day was a different educational opportunity and I was ready to educate everyone.”

Because of some stressful experiences and watching students needing a positive role model, I needed to come out, and did so very publicly. CBC interviewed me in my home with my partner, and I knew my life would change forever. There was no going back!

Was society ready for this? Well, I soon found out. Each day was a different educational opportunity and I was ready to educate everyone.

MP: You have spent your life building a career as an educator and community leader. Yet you have so much time for giving back. Why?

SR: Society has come a long way, but homophobia and transphobia are alive and well in 2019. When kids are told that it’s not okay to be gay, we all pay a price, and the research is very clear.

I joined the board of Equality for Gays And Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE) Canada in 2007, and my focus was on research and education. It was critical that all children could see themselves and their families reflected in school curriculum.

“We are one of several LGBTQ2S organizations who present at the United Nations every two years.”

Ironically, after we won the right to marry, people felt we had equal rights. In reality, that is still not the case in many educational facilities. In 2012-13 we conducted Safe and Inclusive Workshops with every principal, vice-principal and guidance counsellor in the province.

Today, EGALE Canada is a leading LGBTQ2S organization. We work with many universities in Canada, conducting research exploring homophobia and transphobia. Our research has gained national and international recognition, and we are one of several LGBTQ2S organizations who present at the United Nations every two years.

In our province today, approximately 60 per cent of our schools have gay-straight alliances. There’s still lots of work left to be done, but what an incredible change!

MP: The focus of your work has evolved to include educating the educators. Why is that important?

SR: As educators, we are with people’s kids five hours a day. We are partly responsible for who they become – we need to consider what types of citizens we put into the world. We all need to be respectful and aware of saying things that could damage a child.

The technical education of doctors, educators, and lawyers is very important. Also, though, these leaders must understand about safe environments and inclusivity. It is not just about academics.

MP: What is your relationship with Memorial University these days?

SR: I have been involved with several initiatives, most recently with Michael Clair at Memorial’s Harris Centre. Plus, I sit on several national committees addressing bullying and its impacts.

The key insight: we are not addressing situations where people are disrespectful. Everyone deserves to be valued, and no one deserves to be condemned.

MP: How did you react when you found out you were being given Memorial’s Award for Outstanding Community Service?

SR: It was heartwarming. I work with students, educators, and families, and I try to make a difference one person at a time. I recently met a family, and the 12-year-old said, “I don’t go to school.” Families need support – they need an advocate. Sometimes, that’s me.

I am not a public figure: I was thrilled to receive this award, because in my line of work, it is uncommon to be recognized. The most fulfilling part is when I watch a once broken person succeed.

Susan Rose will be honoured during the 38th annual Alumni Tribute Awards ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 24, at Memorial’s Signal Hill Campus, St. John’s, N.L. Tickets (individuals and tables) can be purchased online. For additional inquiries, please contact Alumni Engagement, Office of Public Engagement at 709-864-4354, toll free at 1-877-700-4081 or email rsvpalumni@mun.ca.

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