Alumni, Philanthropy

Part of the bigger picture

March 15, 2024

The story behind SFU’s newest mural stretches far beyond its home in Robert C. Brown Hall. It is just one of three new enhancements to SFU’s Department of Geography made possible by a generous legacy gift of $500,000 left by geography alumnus Kenneth Cawker.

Designed by Squamish artist Aaron “Splash” Nelson-Moody, the colourful display represents the teaching of how salmon came to the nation’s waterways. If the people promised to treat the salmon and water with respect, the teaching goes, the Chief of the Salmon People would continue to send them fish to eat. On April 5, the department gathered to install the mural in a “paint-by-numbers” style, allowing faculty, staff, and students to each paint a small section of the final piece. According to department chair Tracy Brennand, the artwork doesn’t just add a pop of colour to the study space—it illustrates the beauty of a community creating something larger than themselves.

“Even if you only painted a small part of it, you still felt like you were part of something lasting for the department,” Brennand says.

The bequest has also increased much-needed financial support for geography students by establishing a donor matching fund and doubling the scholarships available to graduate students. Hannah Harrison is already seeing the benefits as a PhD candidate studying the complex systems that influence Arctic lakes’ methane gas emissions. Through turning a careful eye to these often-misunderstood aquatic systems, Harrison is piecing together a more accurate picture of the Arctic’s role as a “carbon sink” to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Originally from the United States, Harrison was drawn to SFU for the opportunity to work with Lance Lesack, who is one of the world’s few experts on Arctic hydrology. Like most geography scholars, hands-on fieldwork is an essential element of Harrison’s research. She says her extended summer sessions spent in the Arctic are a highlight of her work at SFU.

“It is truly a beautiful and unique location,” Harrison says.

However, her months spent in the field also come with an added financial strain. Unable to pick up paid work during the summer to fund her studies, scholarships are crucial to enabling Harrison to spend the time and complete the tasks that are vital to her research projects.

“Scholarships allow me to spend another year doing work that I love without worrying about the financial burden of tuition,” she says.

SFU’s Department of Geography is home to more than 60 graduate students like Harrison. Each of them, department chair Brennand says, are key drivers of the university’s cutting-edge research surrounding environmental and human health.

“Understanding the relationship between people and the environment has never been more important,” Brennand says. “And graduate students play a necessary role in driving this research.”

Thanks to Cawker’s gift, a newly established matching fund of $200,000 will support even more students, including the 500 undergraduate students enrolled in BA, BEnv and BSc geography majors. Through doubling the impact of each new endowed gift made to the department, Brennand says the fund will expand the number of scholarships, bursaries, and experiential learning opportunities available to undergraduate and graduate students.   

Even more profoundly, Brennand says the ripple effect of this gift highlights the essential understanding of geography itself: all features of the earth, living or not, are in relationship with one another.

“All of us, whether we realize it or not, are a part of the bigger picture.”

For more information about how you can donate to the matching fund and increase support for students, please contact Christine Harris, Director of Advancement at or 778.782.8859.