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UCalgary Senate offers volunteer senators unique opportunities for mentoring and leadership

Gordon Aker and Miriam Berchuk tell of gratifying benefits that come with volunteering on the Senate
March 8, 2017
University of Calgary Senate for 2016-17. Photo by Dave Brown, Libraries and Cultural Resources

University of Calgary Senate for 2016-17. Photo by Dave Brown, Libraries and Cultural Resources

UCalgary Senator Gordon Aker. Photo courtesy of the University of Calgary's Office of the Chancellor and Senate.

UCalgary Senator Gordon Aker. Photo courtesy of the University of Calgary's Office of the Chancellor and Senate

UCalgary Senator Miriam Berchuk. Photo courtesy of the University of Calgary's Office of the Chancellor and Senate.

UCalgary Senator Miriam Berchuk. UCalgary Senator Gordon Aker. Photo courtesy of the University of Calgary's Office of the Chancellor and Senate

The Senate is comprised of a highly diverse membership — an impressively capable and passionate group of volunteers with substantial knowledge, skills and experiences from the business, government, non-profit and academic sectors. Senators create a bridge between the university and the wider community by promoting the university’s reputation and priorities, building long-term support for the university and developing and maintaining positive and productive relationships between the university and the community. Senators attend regular meetings, participate in ongoing standing committee work. and support special events throughout the year. 

UToday spoke with two UCalgary senators Gordon Aker, who is completing his final term on Senate, and Miriam Berchuk, who is a year and a half into her role, about their experiences on this important volunteer body at the University of Calgary. 

Gordon Aker is a professional engineer, BEng‘84, MEng‘86, experienced organizational leader and executive coach. 

Q: What first sparked your interest in becoming a UCalgary senator, and for how long have you been in the role? 

A: My earliest involvement with the University of Calgary came as a result of a presentation I was asked to make at the Engineering third- and fourth-year dinner. At the time, Dr. Elizabeth Cannon was dean of the Schulich School of Engineering, and following my presentation, I was invited to work with the school to develop a program to support their student leaders. One year later, with the generous sponsorship of Dr. Gerald Maier, the Maier Student Leadership Program was born — the first of its kind in Canada. 

Working on this project gave me exposure to Dr. Cannon’s commitment to leadership, and when she was then appointed to the role of president and vice-chancellor of the university, I thought about how I might continue to support this exceptional leader and her vision for the institution. A fellow executive coach and then senator suggested that the Senate would provide an excellent opportunity for me to volunteer, support, challenge and champion the University and … he was right. 

I have now served two three-year terms — the maximum amount of time one can serve as a University of Calgary senator — and I will be completing my final term soon. 

Q: What have been some of the most satisfying moments in your role as a senator? 

A: Most satisfying for me has been the opportunity to mentor truly extraordinary students — students with outstanding academic records who are athletic leaders and extraordinary community volunteers. Their care, compassion, curiosity and brilliance left me wondering who was mentoring whom. I remain convinced that I learned more from these remarkable students than they did from me, and one can only marvel at the futures they have in front of them.

The second-most satisfying time for me on Senate was being asked by Chancellor Thirsk — along with a small group of senators — to facilitate the development of the Senate Strategic Plan. This process gave us incredible access to a wide variety of UCalgary leaders, academics, volunteers and students, which I found to be fascinating and inspiring. The University of Calgary is truly blessed with outstanding and talented individuals throughout. 

Q: If you could offer advice to a senator who is just starting out in their role, what would that be? 

A: Quite simply: Dive in head first and swim like hell. At my first-ever committee meeting of the community engagement committee, I was elected vice-chair. I went on as co-chair of the committee and then as chair, all the while learning on the fly how the Senate functions, what the limitations are and how to get things done. As former Chancellor Jim Dinning used to say to students during convocation, “There will come a time when you are presented with opportunities to lead and when that happens, as it inevitably will, be sure to say yes.” The same holds true for the Senate experience. You won’t go far wrong by saying yes. 

Q: What will you miss the most about being a senator? 

A: I will miss sitting on the convocation stage watching the future of the world walk by me one by one. To witness this spectacle is to know that the future is in good hands.

Miriam Berchuk is an anesthesiologist (MD 2000, FRCPC 2005) practicing at Calgary’s Rockyview General Hospital. She is also a clinical assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. 

Q: How did you become involved in UCalgary’s Senate? 

A: In the spring of 2015, I was approached by a sitting senator who suggested that I consider applying. She is someone I had met while serving on the board of a Calgary organization, and we'd known each other for several years. I felt very honoured that she considered me to be suitable.  

I wasn’t very familiar with what the role entailed and so conducted some research on the mandate of UCalgary’s Senate. I liked the idea of learning more about the university, and of getting involved beyond just my role as an educator of medical students and residents at the Cumming School of Medicine. I applied and began serving as a senator in September 2015, so am halfway through my second year of a three year term. 

Q: What have been some of the highlights for you in your role as senator so far? 

A: The thing I very much enjoy about volunteering with UCalgary’s Senate is being surrounded by extremely talented people. So many of the current senators and university leadership team are extraordinary individuals. It's amazing to watch them in action. They have skill sets very different from mine, and it's inspiring to observe. My hope is that with time, I'll absorb some of their skills through osmosis. It's an incredible learning opportunity for me.  

I have attended a varied selection of UCalgary events, and there are several that stand out for me. In the spring of 2016, I attended an event where David Jacobson (former U.S. ambassador to Canada) and Gary Doer (former Canadian ambassador to the U.S.) discussed in a casual style their former roles, what it was like working together, and how they believed the upcoming election would turn out. They spoke eloquently and I gained real insight. Another event that left me feeling better educated was an alumni event held by the Faculty of Engineering alumni association called The Future of the Oilsands. The topic was very pertinent and they covered it in a way that was meaningful and understandable to those who have no background in the area. 

I work in an operating room, which has a very specific workplace culture. I suspect many other workplaces also have their own cultures. What's been most beneficial to me during my time on the Senate is getting out of my "bubble" and operating (no pun intended) in an entirely different environment. I recommend everyone try it. It has pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I'm better for it.  

Q: If you could offer advice to someone who is just starting in their role as a new UCalgary senator, what would this be? 

A: To make the time to attend the events that interest you, and to get to know your fellow senators. We're a very diverse group of people. 

Q: What do you most look forward to in your role as senator this and/or next year? 

A: I look forward to getting increasingly involved in all the UCalgary Senate has to offer, and taking on more leadership opportunities.  

Learn more about the University of Calgary Senate and how you can get involved.

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