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Kim Samuel Receives Honorary Doctor of Letters at Vancouver Island University

February 4, 2019

On February 1st, 2019, founder of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, Kim Samuel, was presented with a degree of Doctor of Letters from Vancouver Island University. Ms. Samuel’s achievements in the field of social isolation and connectedness are incredibly far reaching. Throughout her years of academic research, public advocacy, and teaching, Ms. Samuel has made an outstanding impact in driving social change.

In all of her endeavours, Ms. Samuel has held on to the steadfast belief that no one should have to, “sit alone at the bottom of the well”. She believes that every individual is born with a human right to belong. 

In her speech, she reminds members of the graduating class of their inherent value:

“You matter here- as the VIU motto states. In fact, you matter everywhere. Because you belong, everywhere.” These words, though directed at the graduating class, are intended for everyone to hear.

All in all, we at the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness are very proud to see Ms. Samuel being honoured for her passion and commitment to building a future of belonging. 

Read Ms. Samuel’s full speech below: 

Kim Samuel Remarks at VIU Convocation Nanaimo, British Columbia February 1, 2019

Good afternoon Vancouver Island University.  I am overjoyed to be here today. Let me begin by acknowledging that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territory of the Snueymuxw people to whom I express gratitude for the opportunity to gather, learn, and celebrate on your territory. Thank you especially to the Elders for this generous welcome and for beginning our ceremonies in such a meaningful way.

To Lt. Governor Janet Austin, Chancellor Mandell, President and Vice Chancellor Nilson, Board Vice Chair McLachlan, Senate and Board Members, Faculty and Staff, Family and Friends, and all who make up the community of VIU, thank you for welcoming me to your extended family.

And most of all, to the Awesome Students who are graduating today. Thank you for letting me share this celebration with you. Congratulations to each one of you, to your families, and to everyone who is holding you up on this most special of special days!

In June 1983, I graduated from Trinity College at the University of Toronto with a BA in human geography. I didn’t attend my graduation. I thought about it and in the end decided, No. The day came and I couldn’t go. I didn’t feel worthy. Hadn’t earned it. My grades were good. It wasn’t that.

I had missed most of my classes, and in my final two years I was away for a couple of months at a time. I thought that nobody noticed. Actually, I’m pretty sure that nobody did notice, except for my small circle of friends whom I told I was away on wonderful adventures. That wasn’t true most of the time. I felt invisible. Outside all circles of concern.

I never poked my head above the waterline enough to be noticed, didn’t cause any trouble, was friendly, cheerful, and outgoing, except when I wasn’t. I didn’t feel seen for who I was. Then again, I didn’t really know who I was.

I felt ‘less than’, having believed my whole life until then that the only thing I was good at was school itself, and also horseback riding; and that without these two things, and even with them, I felt that I had no purpose that I could see.

That’s because I hadn’t yet learned how to value myself. I was anything but whole, and I felt shame and guilt that this was the case.

By 1985, I hadn’t quite figured things out, to say the least, but I had figured out that I needed a plan; so I made a plan to go to Washington, DC to work on the Canada-US Trade negotiations for the Canadian government. This was no small feat given that I had a degree in geography, not international studies, and that I was not exactly on the radar of the Canadian Embassy.

My determination and my agility have always served me well. This was a case in point. If I didn’t have the key to the front door, I’d try the side door, the back door, climb through the window, or dig a tunnel, only if absolutely necessary. Life skills on which I still rely. Humour is another one. There is always a lighter side, even when one feels stuck in the mud on the darker side. It’s a continuum after all.      Anyway, after a few bumps on the road, I got the job I was seeking and embarked on a career that has brought me fulfillment, well several careers actually – culminating with finding my life’s work, my true purpose, in calling-out, de-stigmatizing and building programs and policies to overcome social isolation and its first cousins: loneliness, stigma, shame, humiliation.

And then I found my true vocation, my métier – teaching. And learning from my students; for they are my teachers too.

Eventually, I found my true purpose. It only took three decades after graduation, and a lot more bumps in the road, some little, some not so little …  but I don’t regret a single step or mis-step along the way. I was always on my path; I just didn’t always know it.

As Joseph Campbell said, “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” So, what does missing all those classes and that first graduation have to do with today, Class of 2019?

 It’s not that I’m advocating for mass-truancy in post-secondary education, though it does account for why in my classroom, I strive to create an education experience and a community of caring, where every student brings their whole self to class, where we are a teaching and learning community, together, where I know everyone’s name, and where everyone matters equally.

This sense of place, this place of belonging as part of a caring community, both inside and outside the classroom, on campus and off-campus, is what VIU embodies. As Ralph Nilson says: “We have our hands on your back, holding you up for the rest of your lives.”

Here I see the true purpose of education in spirit and in action – academic excellence, curiosity, and inquiry, grounded in a reverence for being and belonging in community, in nature, in harmony; they are all inextricably intertwined and mutually reinforce one another. No wonder VIU is widely considered one of the best, if not the best, teaching universities in the world.

I belong here at VIU too. Seen for who I am, worthy to listen and be listened-to, feeling the hands of support on my back, held up by all of you.  I wanted to tell you my story to give you some idea of what today means to me. Only everything. You see, today is my second graduation, and I am here, present and supported in every way, and oh what a feeling this is!!

My life’s work is motivated by two simple and unwavering beliefs: First is that nobody should ever have to feel as though they are sitting all alone at the bottom of a well. I’m not saying we can avoid the bottom of the well altogether – in fact, I don’t think we can – but when we find ourselves there, we do not have to be sitting all alone. We should be able to count on someone else to come sit with us, hold us up, loan us some of their resilience, just as we will do for them in return when the situation is reversed.

The Buddy Bench here on campus is a wonderful manifestation of this belief in action.

Second is that we all have a human right to belong. This is our birthright and our responsibility to ourselves and to humankind – to be there for each other, to care for one another, to see one another, or, as my friend, Kluane Adamek, from Kluane First Nation and Yukon Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, states so clearly, “it’s important how you show up in your community”.

Stories matter too. They matter greatly. Each one of us has a story, and it isn’t only our story. It is the story of our ancestors, the future generations, and this point in time where we belong. Always. This is not to say that belonging is always easy, in fact I doubt that anyone always feels they belong. As Leonard Cohen told us, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

Rather, what I am saying is that by working together, we can build belonging around the ethos of the “Whole Student”.  And we can begin by asking ourselves, “What do we value?”, or as the farmer-philosopher-poet Wendell Berry inquires with unmistakable precision, “What are people for?”      Knowing what questions to ask is sometimes more important in setting us on a course than the answers themselves, especially if you believe, as I do, that the Creator has already blessed us with the knowledge we need. Our task is to listen deeply to our Ancestors, to Mother Earth, to ourselves, and to one another; and only then to act if that is what we are called to do.

Wherever our life’s journeys take us, we all have the opportunity to create new systems that serve people first, while honouring the precious gifts of diversity, knowledge, understanding, and compassion, just as we are doing here today.

Awesome Graduates:

  • If there was one thing I wish I heard more of when I was younger, it was this: I see you. I believe in you. You are not alone. You belong and you matter.
  • In today’s age of online communication, emerging technologies, like AI and automation, it may seem like our opportunities for in-person interactions are more limited. Yet I believe we can overcome the forces of fear and isolation in our lives when we prioritize belonging and connection. The challenges of the future require the ability to empathize, be curious, creative, and to collaborate with others.
  • Take advantage of the opportunities you have to connect face-to-face with someone else. Savour those moments and learn how to be truly present and listen deeply to others.
  • Find opportunities to be a “weaver” and a “bridge.” When we connect face-to-face, we can develop a shared understanding, gain new perspectives, and expand our worldviews. Use these skills to break down the siloes that are fueling inequality, othering, and divisions in our society.
  • Whatever situation you are tackling, think about whose voices are not in the room when they should be. Solving our greatest global challenges today – from poverty in all its dimensions, to climate change, to forced migration, to political polarization – requires everyone to be a full and equal participant in driving change.
  • Co-create circles of belonging, based on respect, recognition, and reciprocity. And always make sure to place yourself in the circle too. We only belong if we belong together, and this includes you. Every one of you can be change-makers and leaders of inclusion when you work from a partnership model of ‘with, not for’.
  • Stay true to yourselves and remember that you will always belong to yourself. Remind those around you that they belong too.
  • Finally, if there’s anything our world needs more of right now, it’s resilience. If you have a way of adding to humanity’s sense of connectedness and stories of resilience, go for it with your head, your heart, and your hands!
  • And if you need more resilience, companionship, camaraderie, advice, help, material support – ask for it. Don’t be afraid. Act on the knowingness that you are not alone. And trust that caring is a reciprocal act, for the one who is giving and the one who is receiving at any given time.

Remember: Hands on your back for the rest of your life. And now for a little stroll down memory lane…There’s an old song titled “One”, which was written by a musician called Harry Nilsson, presumably no relation to Ralph, but I’m not positive…  and made famous by a band called Three Dog Night in the late 1960s.

It begins like this: “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” Now even if you’re too young to know that sentiment, much less that song, it hardly matters. What does matter, I think, is that some of you, like me, have experienced that feeling of being alone, of being that one. Not in solitude which we choose, but in isolation, which we don’t. But I have some really good news to share, something I’ve learned along the way: As it turns out, one is not the loneliest number – at least it doesn’t have to be. As expressed by Tsawalk, the worldview of Nuu chah nulth peoples for example, “we are all one – we are all connected”.

This sense of oneness translates into what Margaret Atwood calls a “We Society”, where she observes, “you are rarely alone”. Whereas in a “Me Society”, she notes, “you are rarely with”. I believe VIU is a “We Society.” I can tell that being a student at VIU means being a part of a community, based on the values of compassion and resilience, kindness and purpose, values that you will carry in you, and return to, for decades to come, if you choose to, which I hope you will, with all my heart.

Class of 2019: You matter here – As the VIU motto states. In fact, You matter everywhere. Because you belong, everywhere.  

In closing: I wish you joy. I wish you love. I wish you bliss. I wish you happiness. Thank you for listening.

Click here to watch the full recording of the VIU ceremony. Ms. Samuel begins her speech at 1:00.