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Suzanne Kresta > Personal Links & Outreach > Blogs > Professional > FUN: McMaster Convocation Address

FUN: McMaster Convocation Address

June 12, 2024

Hamilton, Ontario, June 11, 2024
YouTube livestream: 1:54:40 Citation at 1:50:20

Thank you, Madam Chancellor, President Farrar, and Dean Sheardown.

Good morning fellow graduates. I want to start by thanking all the family members, colleagues, and friends who have supported us on this journey and are here with us today. As a dean, a professor, an engineer, and a mom, I know that millions of small acts of love and dedication[1] lie behind this ceremony and the accomplishments it represents. As I look out at the sea of your beautiful faces, I am at once uplifted in the company of people I admire greatly and pulled back to my own innocent beginnings.

My story starts 100 years ago when my grandmother[2] and her sisters graduated from the University of Toronto. They were warned that too much education would overdevelop their brains and shrink their wombs[3] – so they might not be able to bear children. My grandmother delivered 4 babies during the depression. They all went on to earn graduate degrees and have families of their own, so those predictions didn’t quite work out as expected.

My grandmother’s endless curiosity prepared her daughters for lives of change and activism. My Mom’s favorite question was, “Why NOT?” frequently followed by JFK’s declaration[4]; “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

In the mid-70’s I was in grade 8 and Quebec was on the verge of separating. We went to a public hearing on the future of Canada, chaired by future prime minister Jean Chrétien. I nudged my mother that I had something to say. Without asking what I had in mind, she simply nodded that I should go to the microphone. (Why NOT?) I patiently explained the problem and my solution to Mr. Chrétien and – much to my surprise – was featured on the front page of the paper the next day[5]. Speaking truth to power seemed like a pretty good deal.

My dad took a different approach. He used laughter to move mountains. One day, he started a water fight and chased our nanny with the hose – right into the house. Another day, he got excited about gold spray paint and spent the weekend playing King Midas – turning everything he touched to gold. I feel like my dad snuck in here last night, applying his Midas touch my gown and this special day. We all leapt to attention when he called – never wanting to miss out on the next crazy adventure.

The gifts of laughter, an open and insatiable curiosity, and knowing I had both the power and a responsibility to change the world led to many opportunities. One of the most surprising was the invitation to co-edit The Handbook of Industrial Mixing when I was only 36. When the handbook was published[6], my student asked if this was “the coolest thing I ever did.” Delighted by his question, I answered “Yes!”  Doing “The coolest thing I’ve ever done!” became my new life goal.

When I became the first UofA engineering professor to take parental leave in 1992 it was the coolest thing I’d ever done, but it was lonely – really lonely – and pretty scary. I was the First, Only, and Different[7]. No-one knew quite what to do with this strange and exotic animal. I call this the Sesame Street Problem. (How many of you watched Sesame Street as toddlers?? You might remember the game…) “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things… (doesn’t belong).” The feeling of not belonging is scary. THAT’s what makes the word “Inclusion” so very important.

Miraculously, my dean introduced me to a group of female engineers in Edmonton who had decided to meet once a month[8]. We were ALL the only female technical employee in our organizations, and we laughed as we shared stories and dreamed up solutions to vexatious problems: cleaning ladies, nannies, and maternity clothes.

I decided that the best way to attract more friends was to make this work look like “the most fun you can have with your boots on,[9]” so I wore bright red cowboy boots and carried laughter with me everywhere I went – and it worked! Many of my former students are now treasured colleagues – and we still share laughter and fun. Next weekend, I’ll be hiking in the Rockies with one of those friends but having fun does not preclude hard work! We’re also running an international conference together, and that’s what gives us the chance to be together.

Working hard to achieve big things IS fun. Many of the times I remember most vividly are the times of flow[10] in high performance teams. Those are times I cared passionately, was pushed to grow fast, risked everything to make a difference, and knew deeply who I was and why I was following that dream[11].

When we take on big things, fun and shared passions are the glue that hold us together and fear is the thing that can tear us apart. Laughter opens people up to curiosity. Curiosity and fear cannot co-exist. When you start to feel frightened, that is the time get really curious[12].

Now listen – this is the important bit[13].

Engineers sometimes obsess so much about the beauty of the right answer that we forget to be curious. We have sometimes been reluctant to include non-engineers at the table. That lost listening can mean that we spend a lot of time and money building the perfect thing – but that thing doesn’t work for the people who needed our help. We are learning that it is better to get curious – to have more perspectives at the table very early in the design process.

Co-creation with – rather than building for – transforms engineering work[14]. In exchange for including the “other” we gain the fun of new ideas and the challenge of moving the box around to see different perspectives. We begin to see problems in technicolor and solutions embedded in community. Co-creation is part of the Future of Engineering Accreditation Project[15], the RE-Engineered first year program[16], and the clinic education model at UPEI’s Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering[17] – three of my current passion projects. The work of building co-creation into our profession is the coolest, most astonishing, and most inclusive thing I’ve ever worked on.

I ALSO relish nourishment. For me, these are the times of laughter, community, and being fully present with friends and family. When it is time to “se resourcer” – to ensure that my deep wellsprings do not run dry – the feeling of peace and gratitude feels like spring water. Seizing these times is central to living a long and happy life, and self-compassion is one of the most important things we can bring to a life of service.[18],[19],[20]

In the end, my message is pretty simple – work hard, have fun, believe in your dreams, and take great joy in this remarkable journey we call life!

Congratulations fellow graduates and thank you for this tremendous honor.

[1] After Mother Teresa (paraphrased) We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.

[2] Dorothy Garnett Kells (1922), Emma Kells, and Kathleen Kells.

[3] Edward H Clarke, Harvard Medical School, 1884. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Hammond_Clarke; https://broadblogs.com/2012/08/22/education-will-shrink-a-womans-uterus/  

[4] John F Kennedy’s inaugural address, 1961.

[5] Charlottetown Guardian, date to follow.

[6] Handbook of Industrial Mixing, Science and Practice, 2004, eds. EL Paul, V Atiemo-Obeng, and SM Kresta, Wiley.

[7] Shonda Rimes, 2016, Year of YES: How to dance it out, Stand in the sun, and Be your own person, Thorndike Press.

[8] Association of Women in Engineering and Science, Alberta, 1991-2010.

[9] Cowboys Dance Hall, est. 1996, Calgary.

[10] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 2008, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

[11] Paraphrased from Naomi Remen, 2001, My Grandfathers Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging, pg 197.

[12] Boris Martin, opening address, EWB National Student Conference, Edmonton, 2014.

[13] Oratorial device used by President Jimmy Carter.

[14] Suzanne Kresta, workshop for Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, Quebec City, April 2023.

[15] Futures of Engineering Accreditation, Engineers Canada. https://engineeringfutures.ca/about

[16] RE-Engineered first year program, University of Saskatchewan, https://engineering.usask.ca/be-a-usask-engineer/re-engineered.php

[17] UPEI Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering, https://www.upei.ca/engineering , “devoted to developing engineers with exceptional design and professional skills combined with a global perspective—engineers who are broadly capable, globally and socially aware, creative, communicative, and entrepreneurial.”

[18] Emily and Amelia Nagoski, 2020, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.

[19] Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2005, Wherever You Go, There You Are.

[20] Adam Grant, 2023, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things.

2 replies on “FUN: McMaster Convocation Address”

  1. Paul Gloor says:

    Congratulations Doctor Doctor

    1. Suzanne says:

      Why thank you Doctor Grandpa !

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