When Tiffany Small crosses the St. John’s Arts and Culture stage to pick up her B.Sc.(Hons.) in biology (marine) on Oct. 17, she will be literally carrying decades of family history on her shoulders.
The 80-year-old black robe she’ll be wearing has made an appearance at convocation many times by several members of her family.
“It’s like the pants in the movie The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants,” said Ms. Small, who grew up in Gander. “But this is the journey of the gown.”
Ms. Small’s great-grandmother, Gladys Mae Pike of Freshwater, N.L., who received the gown from her cousin, Louise Pike, attended Memorial University College and graduated with a teacher’s certificate in 1941. At the time, all students had to wear formal academic robes.
All around the circle
Following graduation, Ms. Pike moved to Summerford, N.L., to teach and, while there, met and married Elmo Small. The couple went on to have six children: Cordell, Wayne, Rosemary, Christine, Robert and Donald before Ms. Small died of tuberculosis in 1955 at age 33.
Cordell, Christine and Robert also attended Memorial. Cordell and Christine interspersed periods of study with teaching, as was normal at the time, while Robert, BA, B.Ed.’72, attended straight through to a degree and wore his mother’s black robe at his convocation ceremony.
“Although she died young, her children were able to avail of the emphasis put on educating teachers in the expanding Memorial University of the 1960s,” said Dr. Hugh Miller, Ms. Small’s uncle.
Cordell’s son, Keith, who is Ms. Small’s father, wore the gown when he received his diploma in electronics engineering technology from Fisheries College (now Marine Institute) in 1985, as did Robert’s children, Mark (BFA’99) and Jillian (B.Ed.’02). Wayne’s son, Andrew (B.Eng.’97), and Rosemary’s daughter, Christine (BN’86), are also Memorial graduates.
The girl in the gown
The gown has now begun to make appearances at convocation ceremonies of a fourth generation. Jillian’s son, Nick, recently wore the gown to his graduation ceremony at the College of the North Atlantic, and now Keith’s daughter will wear it to her own.
“I think the story comes full circle with me,” said Ms. Small. “I became interested in the ocean while spending time with my grandparents in Summerford. My nan and I would spend hours beach combing and playing in tide pools. I was super interested in everything and it grew into a weird passion.”
As a goal-oriented teenager, Ms. Small decided in junior high school that a career in marine biology was her ultimate ambition and that Memorial was the place to do it.
“In my first year at Memorial I took an elective – Ocean Sciences 1000 with Dr. Annie Mercier and it literally opened my eyes to what is possible,” said Ms. Small. “She had people come in who had already done their undergrad and were working on their master’s or PhD. They showcased their research, how they got here and what resources were available.”
Ms. Small contacted Dr. Mercier to ask about doing an honours degree; she then learned about the biology co-operative education program.
“During my co-op interview I asked if I could do both, because while I really wanted to build my resumé, I didn’t want to sacrifice my honours,” she said. “I knew it was going to be difficult, and it was.”
A proud tradition
While applying for her first co-op. placement, she was disappointed to be turned down for her dream job with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
She ultimately went on to work with organizations like the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium and volunteered with the Fluvarium in St. John’s.
Instead of thinking, ‘Why didn’t I get the job I wanted?’ she says she began to think about what she could learn from the jobs she did get.
“At first it was discouraging, but I asked myself, ‘How will this experience serve me and how can I use this to build upon what I do want?’” said Ms. Small.
“As an interpreter, I was able to build my contacts and my interpersonal skills and my passion for science communication grew from trying to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public. Because of those experiences, I ultimately ended up getting a placement at DFO and spent eight months there.”
The organization thought highly of her too. Her supervisors nominated her for the Dean of Science Co-op Student of the Year award. She won.
Now a graduate student at the Marine Institute, Ms. Small is currently working on her master of science degree in fishery science and technology.