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Looking Back: David Turpin reflects on the past year at WUSC and his time as Chair of the Board

Earlier this January, WUSC held its 71st Annual Assembly as part of the WUSC and CECI International Forum.

While there was much to celebrate, it also marked a moment of goodbye for Dr. David Turpin, the outgoing Chair of the WUSC Board of Directors. President of the University of Alberta, Dr. Turpin’s perspective and voice has been deeply valued by the WUSC network as he brought important leadership to WUSC over the past three years.

Here are Dr. Turpin’s parting words:

Remarks from David Turpin, Chair of the WUSC Board of Directors

As you know, this is my last assembly as Chair. It’s been an honour and privilege to serve in this capacity—and I’d like to thank all of my fellow directors for your commitment and support.

A special note of thanks to our Executive Director, Chris Eaton, and his team—thanks to their efforts WUSC continues to increase its activities and its leadership in international development both here in Canada and around the world. Thank you!

I chose to become involved in WUSC because its goals and values resonate strongly with my own beliefs about education, about universities’ role in society, and about Canada’s potential for positive leadership in the world.

Education—and the post-secondary institutions in which we study and work—play a critical role to in helping to improve the lives of individuals and their communities. We know that from our own experiences but we can also see it when we consider the results of organizations such as WUSC.

Over the last year alone, WUSC resettled 128 young refugees through its signature Student Refugee Program. We are now working with 62 sponsoring groups—9 more than two years ago.

Our focus on this program is especially important now— as we face a period of human history in which we’re seeing unprecedented numbers of people displaced from their homes. The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that more than 65 million people are on the move—more than 22 million of them refugees.

These numbers are daunting, but tackling the problem begins one person at a time—and that’s where WUSC plays a key role. Each student refugee that we place is one step closer to achieving their potential—not only because we can offer them the chance to resume their interrupted studies but because we can also offer them the things that many of us take for granted.

A safe space to live. The ability to move through the city—meet with friends, have a coffee—without fear of violence or arrest. The time and space to play a pick up game of soccer or hold down a part-time job.

At my university—the U of A—we’ve brought 14 Syrian refugees to campus over the last two years. When asked about their new lives in Canada—it’s these seemingly small things that they speak of. But when you consider that several of them endured periods of arrest and imprisonment prior to coming to Canada—it really isn’t a small thing to be able to freely leave your home and meet up with friends.

One of them recently told a reporter that the only trouble he has now is studying trouble. And that’s how it should be for any student.

It’s because of student volunteers like you—with your offers of assistance, friendship, and support—that refugee students adapt and thrive on our campuses. Because of you, they begin to feel at home on our Canadian campuses and can turn their attention to academic challenges rather than the troubles of war, displacement, and homesickness.

And in helping them achieve their academic potential, you also help them to support their families back home which in turn can have lasting effects. You help them develop the skills they’ll need to either build and strengthen their new homes in Canada or rebuild and renew their native communities.

This is vital, meaningful work and other governments and agencies continue to take notice.

In November, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, acknowledged the leadership of WUSC at an event in Gatineau, Quebec. In partnership with us, the UNHCR has developed a guide that is founded on WUSC’s unique framework for the resettlement, education, and integration of refugee youth.

We continue to explore and expand opportunities, sharing the model and framework with partners and agencies in nations which are on the front lines of refugee movements, such as Kenya, Jordan, and Iraq.

The global context for our work seems to be growing more volatile and fragmented every day. I think of the divisiveness in American politics that dominates our new cycles or Brexit or the deepening polarization between left and right in all of our communities. The threat of nuclear war is again on the rise. Millions people—as I have already noted—are being displaced from their homes because of civil war, poverty, and natural disasters—many due to the impacts of climate change.

Locally and globally, it is clear that many people feel disenfranchised from their government, from full employment, and from each other. Some fear being left behind. At times, all of us can feel unheard.

In this global climate, the voice, values and goals of WUSC stand out in stark relief. We strive to create spaces where diverse groups of people come together and thrive. We reach out to and strive to listen to people whose experiences differ greatly from our own. We strive to build partnerships and do work that helps to re-enfranchise youth and empower them to lead the change their communities need to prosper.

I continued to be inspired by WUSC—not only because it offers a powerful antidote to today’s prevailing tenor of fragmentation and conflict—but because the longer arc of history shows that works like ours is truly changing the world for the better.

As Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, has reminded us in much of his writings, by all of the important measures, life has vastly improved over the last two centuries. I cite a few statistics he shared in the Munk Debates a little over a year ago.

200 years ago, 85% of the world’s population lived in poverty—now it’s at about 10%– which is why one of the UN’s sustainability goals in zero poverty by 2030.

Also 200 years ago, 17% percent of people across the world had a basic education—now it’s 82% and continues to increase.

150 years ago—when Canada became a country—global life expectancy was about 30 years and now it is 70.

We are healthier, safer and more peaceful. Disease and crime rates continue to fall, and although many still suffer in civil wars, the number of people killed in armed conflict has dropped from 300 per 100,000 in WWI to less than 1 today.

I raise these points not to suggest that WUSC can relax or that our work is done. But to remind all of us here that international development efforts and organizations—such as WUSC—are effective and important. We are achieving our long term goals. We are improving lives and building stronger, more prosperous communities.

WUSC began with a student refugee program in the 1950s—today we run Canada’s 3rd largest international development programs in Canada.

In partnership with CECI, we are involved in Canada’s biggest international volunteer cooperation program—Uniterra—which in 2016/2017 trained over 20,000 people in 14 countries. Many of you here today have participated in Uniterra’s Students without Borders program.

In addition to CECI and UNHCR, we are also an important and valued partner of Global Affairs Canada, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and Employment and Social Development Canada.

In future, we must build on our strengths and continue to be responsive to global trends and needs.

As we begin to renew and update our Strategic Framework, the board has developed a set of questions to frame the discussion: How much should WUSC change in order to continue to add value and thrive in a rapidly evolving Canadian and global context? What new programming approaches should we embrace? Should we position WUSC as a Canadian and or global organization? And how will our choice affect the geographic focus of future programs; and WUSC’s status as a volunteer cooperation organization?

The strategic review process will be a collaborative, collective effort. I encourage everyone to contribute to the process—we need a wide variety of viewpoints from all of our members.

Finally, I would like to conclude my chair’s report as I began: on a note of thanks.

Thank you to our international and post-secondary partners—both here in Canada and around the world—for working with us to achieve common goals.

Thank you to our friends and volunteers for your generous gifts of time, expertise, and other support.

And thank you to all of our WUSC members—Institutional Members, Local Committee Members, and General Members. You are the foundation of WUSC—your efforts make this organization what it is today.

To all of you who are students—I want to recognize your leadership on your campuses and in WUSC. You model openness and inclusivity. You help us strengthen the diversity of our campuses. You show others what can be accomplished when you champion connection, understanding, and service over the many forces that keep pulling us inward into ourselves.

As you graduate and move on, take the values and vision of WUSC into your workplaces and voluntary organizations, and continue your leadership there. Continue to be global citizens and help those around you to remember what is possible when we focus on common, shared interests.

And please remain connected to WUSC throughout your life. Bring your future expertise back and help us to keep this organization remain vital and responsive. Help us build partnerships and connections into new sectors in Canadian society and the international community. Your fresh vision will be key to ensuring WUSC’s continued success for decades to come.

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