Award celebrates her ‘oasis of discovery’

Paul Mayne // Western News

After 36 years at Western, Teaching Support Centre Director Debra Dawson will retire this August, but not before receiving the Chris Knapper Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Debra Dawson never imagined the possibilities.

“I never had to do what I did; I wanted to do it. And there’s a difference,” said the Director of Western’s Teaching Support Centre. “There are so many multiple opportunities at a university like this. The things I’ve gotten to do here you can’t imagine.”

And now, after a career doing those “things,” Dawson will receive the Chris Knapper Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) at its annual conference, held later this month at Western. The award recognizes the long-time Western employee’s contributions to teaching, learning and educational development in Canadian higher education.

“It’s been tremendously important for me to foster the development of others. That’s what I’m here to do – it’s the biggest gift I can give to others,” said Dawson who, after 36 years at Western, will retire this August. “I meet wonderful people and have wonderful relationships. That’s what I get back. Fostering adult learning is very important and I believe in what I do.”

Her desire to nurture faculty members doesn’t go unnoticed by her colleagues.

“It has been Deb’s life’s work to nurture the Teaching Support Centre’s growth into the full-spectrum institution-within-the-institution that we see today,” Biology professor Tom Haffie said. “This leadership has been apparent and important in several areas, including academic integrity, active and eLearning, curriculum, diversity, graduate student development, teaching fellowships and mentoring for faculty across the career spectrum.”

Western Psychology professor Mike Atkinson said Dawson kept him going as he struggled during his first year teaching.

“Deb’s enthusiasm is infectious. You cannot help but to be happy and positive around her. It is a quality she has never lost,” he continued. “To me, Deb is the consummate teacher in higher education. She deeply cares about our craft and is willing to offer her assistance to anyone who asks. She has taken the Teaching Support Centre to new heights and transformed our image from a place for remedial training to an oasis of discovery and innovation.”

The admiration for Dawson goes beyond the Western Gates.

Carleton University Associate Vice-President (Teaching and Learning) Joy Mighty said Dawson brings her passion, energy and humour to everything she does.

“She has been a change agent, and a mentor,” she said. “Few have the skills to change the course of the academy; to turn big ideas into action. There is no question in my mind that academics, from across the country, who are committed to engaging meaningfully with the scholarship of teaching and learning, have had much more opportunity to do so because of Debra’s capacity to make things happen.”

With so much already accomplished, and so much more on the go (including leading faculty educational training in Tanzania and Japan over the next few months), it surprised many when Dawson announced she would be retiring.

“Western will always be a part of who I am; it’s been my whole life – really. I don’t think it’s something you can just stop. I’m so purple and proud,” she said, recalling her earliest days in the mailroom and her time as a research assistant in the Department of Psychology. “Every time a door opened I stepped through and that led me to a lot of new experiences to learn.”

After three decades, Dawson takes away a lot from her years.

“What I get back is to watch the growth in my profession,” she said. “My role is about fostering relationships. I love the people. Western is a great community and I get to meet amazing teachers. Higher education is like planting a seed to grow an oak tree – some are going to take and it will take many years to grow, and I may be here for it or I may not. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?”

Dawson has been “truly lucky” to have worked at the university her whole life and, even 36 years later, takes great joy in coming to work each day.

“Could I imagine myself never setting foot on campus again? That’s a joke,” she smiled. “What a joy in life to end up at this point saying, ‘I got to do what I thought was most important and I got to work with fantastic people.’ I don’t know where else you could work to meet such a diversity of people. I can’t imagine where else you would want to work.”