Western celebrates its 314th Convocation

Follow along every day as seven distinguished individuals receive honorary degrees and the academic accomplishments of hundreds of students are celebrated as Western hosts its 314th Convocation.

Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue
10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23
Doctor of Laws, honoris causa (LLD)

Practise failing – and always practise getting back to your feet, ice-dance Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir told graduates at the morning session of Convocation Wednesday.

“The truth is, failure is a way to gather data,” Virtue said. “What might feel like failure in the moment will often not be regarded as such upon reflection later. A loss or a disappointment offer a chance to pause and pivot before reassessing the status quo and forging ahead with newfound perspective.”

At the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Virtue and Moir were not only the first ice dancers from North America to win the Olympic gold medal, but they were also the first ice dance team to win on home ice, the first to win gold in their Olympic debut, and the youngest pair to win. At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, they won silver medals in ice dancing and in the team event. After taking a two-year hiatus, Virtue and Moir won two more gold medals at the PyeongChang 2018 Games securing their titles as the most decorated figure skaters in the history of the sport.

“There is no shortcut to success. No quick fix, no easy recipe – and if there was, I’m not sure you’d want it,” Moir said. “But the good news is, everything you need is already within you and we have every confidence in your ability to carry on and set the world on fire. It is time to persevere, time to remain generous of heart, and time to be brave. We’ll be cheering for you every step of the way.”

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Mina J. Bissell
3 p.m.
Wednesday, Oct. 23
Doctor of Science, honoris causa (DSc)

Exhibit empathy, show sympathy and help anyone in your path, scientist Mina J. Bissell urged graduates during the afternoon session of Convocation Wednesday.

A Distinguished Senior Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Bissell pioneered the field of tumor microenvironment. Investigating mammary glands and breast cancer, her body of work proved the pivotal role that extracellular matrix signaling plays in regulation of gene expression in both normal and malignant cells. Her laboratory pioneered the use of 3D organoids and techniques.

She has also been a committed mentor to young scientists and an influence and inspiration to women in science.

An émigré from Iran to the United States, Bissell credited an English-language professor with helping her learn the language of her adopted country. “I really want to encourage all of you to read literature. It’s good for you,” she said, and, to laughter, added, “It’s good for writing grants. It’s good for getting money.”

And although boldness is not a Canadian trait, she said, everyone must challenge authority when necessary. “Go forward, graduates, achieve what you want – you can. You only have one good life; you might as well do something very good with it.”

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Donald Franklin Gerson
10 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 24
Doctor of Science, honoris causa (DSc)

In a life and career filled with ever-expanding possibilities, Dr. Donald Gerson chose to make global health his largest and most challenging ‘radius of concern’.

At Thursday’s morning Convocation, he urged others to do the same: “The world is too interconnected to just think of local or financial goals. It is you who will have to develop and expand your own radius of concern to care for the people and the world in the next half century, so those people can prepare for the next generation.”

Gerson, BSc’68 (Chemistry), is Founder, President and CEO of PnuVax, Inc. and PnuVax SL Biopharmaceuticals, Inc., and has been a driving force in the manufacture and distribution of 3.5 billion vaccines that have saved millions of lives around the world.

PnuVax is dedicated to the development of vaccines for underserved populations, and is focusing on new low-cost vaccines to support worldwide health and prevent pneumonia, yellow fever and other neglected diseases. Gerson taught biophysics and biochemical engineering at Western from 1972 to 1979.

He told graduates that the “complicated and wonderful” combination of the study of Biophysics, Chemical Engineering and Immunology enabled him to grow his interests  beyond his life at Western to include the wellbeing of the global community.

“I hope you expand your radius of concern to include ever broader aspects of your field of study and how it affects people far away in distance, age, lifestyle and in capabilities. You need to keep it all in focus, from the near to far, in order to be successful. Be concerned about other people – they are all your neighbors in this shrinking world,” he said.

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Max Tibor Eisen
3 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24
Doctor of Laws, honoris causa (LLD)

It is rare that an entire Convocation is brought both to tears and to its feet.

In an address that had many in the gathered crowd wiping their eyes, 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Max Eisen shared the lessons he had learned while enduring the greatest of world evils and cherishing the smallest acts of individual kindness.

Eisen was born in Moldava, Czechoslovakia, in 1929 into a large Jewish family. He and his family were seized from their home in Hungary and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp in May of 1944.

His family – including parents, two younger brothers and baby sister, his paternal grandparents and uncles, aunts and cousins – all were murdered there.

Eisen survived Auschwitz; survived the infamous death march of prisoners in January 1945; survived imprisonment in Mauthausen and Ebensee concentration camps; survived his return to a destroyed home – and found the courage to emigrate to Canada and make a new life here.

His memoir, By Chance Alone, was the winner of Canada Reads 2019.

Eisen told graduate during the Thursday afternoon Convocation that they must use their skills to build a better world, to be voices of justice in an age of rising hate crimes, polarization, inequality and climate crisis.

He said it is not enough that they educate their minds; they also needed to educate their hearts – to nurture their families, to offer a helping hand to those in need, and to aid strangers.

“Continue to educate yourselves and continue to learn. Celebrate your successes and learn from your mistakes. Find your passion and work hard on it. Be honest. Be humble. Ask questions. Think critically. Confront hatred and injustice. Act with courage and integrity. Listen. Truly listen.

“Be grateful. Be kind.”

He accepted the honorary degree in the names of his siblings, Eugene, Alfred and Judit; in thanks to his wife Ivy, his sons, granddaughters and great-grandchildren; and in remembrance of four women who proclaimed, “Be strong and of good courage,” before they were hanged at Auschwitz for acts of resistance that saved many lives.

At the conclusion of his address, the assembled crowd of graduates, families, faculty and dignitaries rose in a rare ovation.

President Alan Shepard said he did not know how to express his admiration for Eisen – “your resilience, your courage, your care for other human beings.”

Shepard led the assembled group in a sombre moment of silence to remember those who died in the Holocaust.

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Tim David Hockey
10 a.m. Friday, Oct. 25

Doctor of Laws, honoris causa (LLD)

The key to success is not goal-setting, self-improvement or even carrying through on good intentions, said Tim Hockey, President and CEO of TD Ameritrade Holding Corporation.

Instead, life is about valuing all who shape, nurture and challenge you, he told graduates at the Friday morning Convocation session.

“We can become fixated on traditional measures of success: Career. Wealth. Accomplishments,” he said. But his most important lessons came “from all the people along the way. People who taught me; people who loved me and who I loved; people who I’ve lost. All of those people shaped me into the person I’ve become.”

Hockey is a financial services leader with more than 35 years of experience and innovation in banking and wealth management. A philanthropist and impassioned volunteer, Hockey, EMBA’97, is heavily involved with The Hospital for Sick Children and the Mattamy National Cycling Centre. Hockey serves on the Advisory Board of Ivey Business School and continues to mentor students.

During his address, he recounted being fired from a part-time job as a janitor when he was 16. In that moment, he learned, “If you’re going to do a job, put your back into it.” Four months ago, TD Ameritrade announced Hockey would be stepping down, and he wanted to make sure staff knew it wasn’t his choice and that he didn’t quit on them. From that, he learned, “principles only mean something when they’re difficult to uphold.”

Above all, there have been family, friends, spirituality, causes to believe in. His advice – think beyond goals, objectives, money and career advancement and, “remember to remember all of the people.”

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Anita Gaffney Misener
3 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25
Doctor of Laws, honoris causa (LLD)

Anita Gaffney Misener started with an entry-level position at the renowned Stratford Festival 28 years ago and rose through various roles to become, in 2012, its executive director.

“Don’t be afraid to think big,” she told graduates during Friday’s afternoon Convocation session. “You never know where it’ll get you.”

The Festival is North America’s largest non-profit theatre, with a budget of $60 million, and is internationally renowned for the quality of its performances, its fiscal good health and its impact on the local and national economy.

Gaffney has guided the launch of a number of new initiatives including The Forum, The Laboratory, the HD film series and the Stratford Direct bus service. Gaffney, BA’90 (English Language and Literature), MBA’02, was named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network.

She told graduates a survey class at Western lit and fuelled a fire for Shakespeare.

“It really challenged me; I might say it obsessed me. I thought about it night and day. I threw myself into trying to understand and interpret those extraordinary plays.”

After graduation, she got a job at the Stratford Festival and found increasingly more responsible roles that helped her understand and share that magic – seven different jobs between her first role there and her current one.

“Life is full of infinite possibility. As human beings, our doors of perception are blurred and foggy. They don’t allow us a full view of the vista of possibility ahead. Nevermind ‘To be or not to be’ – that’s not the overwhelming question. The real question is, ‘What’s next?’ That’s the big challenge in our collective case study as human beings, and that’s also our sublime adventure.”

She said told graduates similar adventure is also open to them. “If you combine your toolset with a passion for what you are doing and an openness to the infinite possibility of ‘What’s next?’, you won’t just be contributing to society, you’ll be playing an active role in shaping it.”

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