By Sabrina Abraham
The sun shines through the large windows of the office, beaming off her solid wood desk and showcasing the intricate aboriginal art that hangs from it. The walls are covered in books, a reflection of who she is as linguist, academic, and proud advocate of knowledge. On one wall, a giant colourful mural made for her by Senegalese weavers is displayed.
“The arts have the power of healing,” says the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean.
February 2013 marks one year since Mme. Jean took office as Chancellor of the University of Ottawa. As we begin our interview, she reflects upon this milestone year.
“Convocation is such a memorable time for me,” says Michaëlle Jean. “I had the opportunity to present diplomas to students and witness how far they have come.”
She pauses to take a sip of tea, reflecting on the emotions this experience has provoked in her. She then begins to share stories of people she met as the UNESCO Special Envoy for Haiti and the devastations she observed afar.
“I want students to realize what education means for so many young people in countries like Haiti—they treasure that possibility of going to school or university. I think there are so many things we take for granted, we don’t realize what this diploma represents for so many people in this world,” explains the Chancellor.
In spite of these problems and crises throughout the world, Michaëlle Jean is optimistic. She is comfortable in her current role, explaining that in the midst of problems “a university can bring in some oxygen and air” and offer room for thoughts and solutions.
Her time on campus has opened her eyes and mind to fresh perspectives and new ways of solving things. During the 2012 Reception in Celebration of Excellence in Research and Education, the Chancellor describes a moment of ‘awe’: “I was amazed to see the number of our researchers that are introducing an extra level of knowledge and comprehension in some very specific fields. Wow. Now that was a very humbling experience. These are people who consider each challenge and every problem as an opportunity.”
According to the former Governor General of Canada, a country that doesn’t invest in research and its institutions of higher learning is a country at great risk.
“I would like to raise awareness and make people understand that a university deserves to be cultivated, nurtured and protected. Our growth depends on our capacity of having more and more people with amazing competencies to contribute to the greater good of our country,” says Michaëlle Jean. “A university should be about building a citizenship: accompanying strong citizens and making them even stronger. It is about supporting leadership skills in the students, really making sure that they will leave university in the field of their choice as leaders; young women and men willing to contribute to the growth of their society. It’s about working closely with citizens and communities, understanding their needs,” elaborates Michaëlle Jean.
It is clear that communication and connecting with the community drives every decision the Chancellor makes. A woman of many languages, she shares with me her passions, switching from French to English and maximizing on the rich vocabulary both languages have to offer.
“I am a profound believer in bilingualism. For me, it’s a fundamental, essential, cardinal value. We live in an era where the world is interconnected and it is important to be able to communicate with an array of people. I think young people understand that especially with social media; you can see their desire to reach out beyond borders. Every language you speak is an extra possibility for you to engage with others around the world. When you speak French, you have the possibility of engaging with 283 million people; it makes you dizzy. It’s fantastic. This university can be very proud of offering that possibility to many students.”
By expanding the university’s reach to beyond Canada’s borders, students of uOttawa will continue to benefit from greater spaces for exchange, dialogue and research — creating a meeting space of cultures. On the international scene, the University of Ottawa continues to strengthen its reputation.
“It is more and more known as a university of excellence in research; one that is very Canadian and bilingual,” says Michaëlle Jean. “The president, Mr. Rock, and I recently went together to France where we maintain an important partnership with the École normale supérieure de Lyon. We are strengthening our relations with universities of La francophonie allowing us to engage with an array of countries and universities to develop meaningful programs and exchanges for our students.”
Through her role as Chancellor, she hopes to advance the university’s goals in providing an inspiring student experience, continuing the tradition of research excellence, strengthening its international presence and building on its commitment to bilingualism.
“That’s what makes the Destination 20/20 strategy so powerful; it speaks to me and my values,” says Michaëlle Jean.