Honorary Degree speech
Alice J. Baumgart
29 May 2000

Mr. Chancellor,
Madam President,
Distinguished guests,
Members of the graduating classes in

Their families, friends and teachers.

It is a very great honor for me to be here today to receive the degree of doctor of laws honoris causa from this distinguished institution. I would like to thank the University of British Columbia for the tribute and shall cherish it always.

I feel especially privileged to be invited to be on this platform on the occasion of the 80th anniversary year of the establishment of studies in nursing at the University of British Columbia, the first university in Canada to offer a degree program in nursing. The pioneering spirit, which characterized the first graduates and teachers of nursing at UBC, continues to be an animating force in nursing education at this University. It is reflected in the well-deserved reputation of the School for producing graduates who, in the words of its first director, Dr. Ethel Johns, are committed to "blazing the trail and lighting watch-fires on the mountain".

Mr. Chancellor and Madam President, I am certain that those who are about to receive their degrees at your hands will continue in that fine tradition. Before I say a few words to the graduates, however, I would like to acknowledge the support and encouragement that each member of the class of UBC 2000 has received on the road to their degree from her or his family, friends and teachers, as well as classmates. No doubt, some of those who stood by this afternoon's graduates worried about whether this day would ever happen. On behalf of all of us, I offer hearty congratulations and best wishes. We are proud of your accomplishments.

In accepting the invitation to address the graduates this afternoon, I was reminded of advice given to a colleague for a similar event at Queen's University. After spending considerable time agonizing over the choice of a topic for her address, she sought the counsel of a friend. Her friend suggested that her grandson, a recent Queen's graduate might be able to help. A few days later the friend called my colleague to tell her that the grandson was delighted to be of assistance and his letter with some suggestions was on the way. The letter was terse and to the point. It read, Dear Aunt Dorothy: Congratulations, have fun and keep it short.

In striving to heed this sage advice, I would like to take the time remaining at my disposal to invite members of the graduating class to join me in considering the professional journey on which they are about to embark.

You are taking on the role of the 21 St century professional at a time when "Market as god" reigns supreme, to use theologian Harvey Cox's apt turn of phrase. As Cox observes, in the new religion of the market, the preference is for a homogenized world culture with as few inconvenient particularities as possible (Atlantic Monthly, March, 1999). After a heavy dose of "market talk" on the nightly news, I sometimes wonder if I am erected to cover all my professional texts and even my copy of the Bible with the pages of the Wall Street Journal!

You have chosen to live and work by an opposing paradigm to that of the current "Market as god" ideology. Although you are pursuing three different fields of endeavor, you share a commitment to supporting and helping people live dignified and fulfilling lives. This means, among other things, taking account of the richness and diversity of human experience. In each of your chosen fields, you have also accepted the obligation to continuously renew and refine your practice through lifelong learning. The cycle of learning which is ending with your graduation from UBC today has relied heavily on books and classroom and laboratory instruction. However, much of professional practice never enters the pages of a book or a formal instructional setting. It is learned as we practice our craft.

As you begin a new cycle of learning tomorrow, that learning will come more and more from your daily encounters with those whom you serve as well as those with whom you work. However, such learning does not come automatically. Reflective practice, which enriches the professional imagination and gives new meaning to one's craft, is an art that must be carefully cultivated.

There is no shortage of salient opportunities to do so in the professional fields that you have chosen. In my own journey as a professional nurse and academic, it was often the small incidents or routine activities that provided me with richest insights into practice. For example, early in my career, I learned some very important lessons about nursepatient relationships and how easily chance remarks can transform our perceptions of people. This insight came through an experience with a patient who was labeled by hospital staff as "difficult" and so not a favored person to whom to be assigned for caregiving responsibilities. About a week after the patient arrived in the hospital, a staff nurse, who had been on vacation, was receiving reports from staff at the end of the shift. When it came time to report on the "difficult" patient, she said quietly, "I see Mr. Smith is back in hospital. He is such a wonderful and interesting man." I was amazed to see that over the course of the next 3 or so days, the "difficult" patient was transformed from someone to be avoided to a popular and highly desirable patient to whom to be assigned for care.

Many years later when I became a Dean at Queen's University, one of my most treasured and valuable learning opportunities were the monthly sessions at which my colleagues and I reported on trends and issues affecting our respective faculties and schools. I was always intrigued by the centrality of many of the same issues even though we came from vastly different disciplines. However, I came to appreciate how differently we saw the same trends and issues as a result our training and circumstances. Professions, especially large ones like nursing, tend to be very self-sufficient and so it is easy to see the world with one particular set of lenses or blinders. My fellow deans taught me much about the importance of maintaining open borders between disciplines.

No doubt, your teachers have impressed upon you that the 21st century will see the rise of the global professional, the person who works overseas or whose services are made available internationally through the World Wide Web. I expect that some of you have already taken advantage of travel and study abroad to prepare for such a career in the global village envisioned by Marshall McLuhan. I have been greatly privileged to travel extensively and to meet nursing colleagues in many countries. In the process of these travels, I have learned much about health care, nursing, Canada and myself. One of my lessons in how to practice with creativity and ingenuity came from hearing a young Brazilian nurse tell of her efforts to reduce the heavy toll of infant deaths in an isolated region of Bahia. Not having statistics on the actual toll nor the resources to carry out a statistical survey to establish actual infant mortality rates, she befriended the local casket makers. By having them keep a tally of the number of little white coffins they constructed over a period of several months, she was able to determine the infant death rate and obtain a baseline measure to assess the outcomes of her infant care program.

Another opportunity to enrich my understanding of the many ways in which nurses can contribute to improvement of health arose out of my visit to a community project on the outskirts of Gabarone, the capital city of Botswana. One of the goals of the program was to improve local hygiene practices through efforts such as teaching about garbage handling. I was also proudly shown some photos of children participating in a beauty pageant. In Canada, organizing a beauty would hardly qualify as nursing practice. However, when I asked them to tell me about the pageant, I discovered that there was a very logical connection to nursing and to the hygiene goals of the program. Getting ready for the pageant meant getting well scrubbed and dressed up in one's finest clothes. It also provided the community with a tangible way of modeling good hygiene practices. Later during the visit, I asked a young man working in one of the project gardens if I might take his photo. When he agreed but asked to run home first to put on a clean shirt, I really understood the extent to which the new hygiene practices taking hold.

I do not want to take up more of your time now in recounting my own professional journey. In closing, let me once again offer congratulations and best wishes. May the professional journey and new cycle of learning that you are about to begin, be enriching and fulfilling. May you enjoy your work and continue to enjoy the support of your family, friends and professional colleagues.