For Peggy Wakabayashi, it was never just about housing students or keeping residence buildings running smoothly. It was about inspiring the next generation and building up young citizens and leaders.
Her 36 years at Western, the bulk of them at the helm of the university’s student residences, were marked by innovation and first-in-Ontario accomplishments.
Now Wakabayashi’s record, already peppered with awards from many stages of her career, is being recognized with one of Western’s highest staff honours, the President’s Medal for Distinguished Service.
“I am deeply thankful for the many opportunities given to me during my years at Western. The support and encouragement I received certainly set me up for success and contributed to a fulfilling career over many decades. I’m left with so many fond memories to savour in my retirement. I couldn’t be more happy or more grateful,” Wakabayashi said.
The President’s Medal for Distinguished Service is awarded annually to one retiree who “provided exemplary service to the university, over and above the normal requirements of their positions.”
Wakabayashi certainly fits the bill.
“It’s a pleasure to honour Peggy for her many years of service. She made a difference for generations of students who enjoyed all that residence life had to offer. She personified Western’s mission to provide a safe, welcoming and inclusive community,” President Alan Shepard said.
The first step
Wakabayashi began her career at Western as an administrative assistant in 1982. She was hesitant to work at Western because she had never attended university herself. Years later she would be accepted into a master’s program on leadership at Royal Roads University, even without an undergraduate degree.
She first entered the housing world as manager of residence admissions and off-campus housing in 1984.
“I was collecting residence fees, doing record-keeping, matching roommates and assigning people to various residence buildings. That’s how I got my start,” Wakabayashi said.
She credited her supervisor, Susan Grindrod, former associate vice-president (housing and ancillary services), for providing vision and guidance for more than 30 years.
In 1996, Wakabayashi agreed to fill in temporarily as the director of residences. She was so skilled in the leadership role that after a few months, Grindrod opted to keep her there permanently.
Wakabayashi opened five new residence halls as director, more than doubling Western’s on-campus housing to the largest system in Ontario.
Her tenure included trailblazing changes, such as smoke-free residences – the first university in the province to make the switch – implementing new upstander and sexual violence prevention training and offering an alternative spring break, the foundation of Western’s Impact Experience, which gives students a chance to participate in service learning around the world.
When asked by other schools about Western housing initiatives, Wakabayashi said they readily shared ideas and resources.
“We felt it was for the betterment of students everywhere. We looked for trends and innovative ideas we could implement, and over time, our residence system gained a reputation for setting the standard.”
Care and compassion first
With two children of her own, Wakabayashi said she strived to treat Western students as she hoped her daughters would be treated.
“I always felt parents were entrusting us with the care of their children, and we were held to a very high standard of that care – for their safety, well-being and development. They were achieving academically, and at the same time, they were developing as young citizens,” she said.
“We only had an eight-month window where we could augment their academic experience with learning outside the classroom. We tried to share insights, ideas and make the most of that opportunity for the time they lived with us.”
Nurturing their growth and ideas gave the housing department an advantage, too.
It led to constant recruitment opportunities, as student leaders would become employees. Wakabayashi said she always sought to identify strengths in her new hires and find opportunities to let their abilities shine, while mentoring them along the way.
Chris Alleyne, associate vice-president (housing and ancillary services), worked with Wakabayashi for more than 15 years.
“Peggy played such an integral part in my development, both personally and professionally. She was a mentor for many young leaders joining housing. Peggy spent time learning about our aspirations, finding projects for us to develop our leadership skills and providing space for us to be creative,” he said.
“When things didn’t work out, her first question was always, ‘What can we learn from this?’ That supportive approach fostered a culture of innovation and collaboration, something I’ve adopted into my own leadership practice.”
Strong team, strong results
Everything in her department was a team sport.
Building a strong organizational culture was the top priority and a point of pride. Working together as one cohesive unit – and ensuring the team had some fun along the way – was the key to success, Wakabayashi said.
“I’ve always felt strongly about trying to create a place where people work collaboratively and work hard, yet have fun while they’re at it. If you create the right environment, and nurture that, all those other projects sort of bubble up, naturally.”
She credited her husband of 42 years for inspiring her leadership style, saying she always strived to echo his values of respect, appreciation for others, and his caring and considerate nature.
“Others who liked to work in an environment like that modelled the same approach. It becomes a reciprocity of respect, trust in one another’s abilities and support for one another’s ideas. That just became the culture.”
Even in accepting her most recent accolade, Wakabayashi said she felt the recognition was owed to her entire team and the many employees who shared innovative ideas.
“I was certainly pleased, humbled and honoured to get the award, though I felt that I shouldn’t be the one taking all the credit. I have really deep gratitude for my supervisor and all the individuals with whom I worked over the years, as they all played a role in helping me get here.”
Providing housing and care for students in residence “takes a village,” Wakabayashi said.
“Our best plans are always to set the vision, provide the passion for others to do their work – and do it well – and provide them with the supports and training they need to feel confident and comfortable. It is hard work being a residence student leader, a caretaker or a frontline food service worker,” she said.
“Those are hard jobs to do, but they make a difference. We have thousands of students who pass through our doors every year. Each one of those interactions is helping somebody figure out their own values and their own approaches to dealing with life.”