Audrey Tong is an incoming fifth-year University of British Columbia student majoring in Honours Political Science with International Relations, a scholarship recipient, and a successful Co-Op student. Dr. Catherine Rawn is a Senior Instructor in the University of British Columbia Psychology Department, and a recent recipient of the Killam Teaching Prize and the Knox Master Teacher Award. On top of their impressive academic resumes, both of these remarkable women are also pioneers of sorts: they are the first people in their immediate families to attend university.
Audrey is the inaugural winner of the Eileen Clinton Award in Arts, a prize that Dr. Rawn created after grappling with what she terms an “ethical dilemma”: the Research Methods textbook that she was assigning her second year students was one that she had authored, and she felt uncomfortable with the idea of collecting royalties each time one of her students bought her book. Out of necessity came invention: Dr. Rawn decided to use the royalties to set up an award for UBC Arts students. She named it after Eileen Clinton, a Guelph, Ontario high school teacher who was instrumental in encouraging and helping her to attend university, and she designated the award specifically for students who are the first in their immediate families to pursue post-secondary education.
Audrey’s mother emigrated from China at the age of 18, and raised Audrey and her two younger siblings in Vancouver. Audrey remembers always envisioning herself attending university, and her parents were supportive of the idea; however, as a first-generation university student, it was “a struggle just applying” because none of her family members were able to draw from personal experience to help her with her applications.
Similarly, while the decision to apply to post-secondary schools might feel like a no-brainer to those who come from a long line of graduates, Rawn recalls feeling unsure as to whether she should or could follow that path. Eileen Clinton helped change all that. “She was one of the first people to say ‘Of course you’re going to university,’” says Rawn. “She used to send me on errands, partly so that I could learn how to drive,” she chuckles, “and partly so that I could learn how to do things like find journal articles at the library.” Clinton later founded both a high school for special needs students and a language school. She was named a YWCA Woman of Distinction in 2013, and is still creating and leading new initiatives today.
Audrey is another prime example of the importance of strong early mentors, having been inspired by several outstanding high school teachers. She attended Vancouver’s Eric Hamber Secondary School, and, although many of her teachers were excellent, she identifies one English class in particular that had a serious impact on her perception of her own abilities and potential.
“The teacher had us writing thesis statements in Grade 8,” she marvels. “It was basically what you’d encounter in a first-year university ASTU class.”
When asked what’s next for her, Audrey speaks with cautious excitement. “I hope to graduate with flying colours,” she says, breaking out into a grin. “I’d like to pursue a Masters degree in Public Policy or Public Administration, or maybe a Law degree. I’m looking at UBC, but I’m also looking at Toronto, at Oxford, at other places in Europe.”
The confidence that has been instilled in Audrey is evident, but so is her gratitude. “I’m so thankful. It’s that extra little push that allows me to focus on my studies without worrying too much about the financial side of things.”
Her family is just as thrilled. When her mother heard about the award, “she was ecstatic,” says Audrey. “It’s sometimes hard to explain to her what I’m learning – I can’t even really explain to her what political science is – but it gives her a sense of pride to know that I’m accomplishing, and hopefully it inspires my siblings to be active and search for opportunities.”
Following proudly in the footsteps of Eileen Clinton and truly demonstrating what it means to “pay it forward,” Dr. Rawn is enjoying her new role as a mentor and supporter of a first-generation university student. “I feel so fortunate to have found and been recruited for so many amazing opportunities during my time at university, and to connect with a particular student in that way is just amazing,” she says. She hopes that she has been able to benefit Audrey in a similar way.
“It’s that chain of almost haphazard connections that really helps.”
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