His international reach goes back even further. Anderson was part of a team from SFU that in the late 1970s carried out a research project at Sudan’s University of Juba to help establish communication networks for enabling distance education in the southern region of the country. That experience planted the seeds of Anderson’s long-spanning career, as there, he put his early research to practical use. During his time at Juba, Anderson honed his passion for the global potential of his chosen field and understood the difference he could make by keeping people safe and informed.
“Carrying out research for SFU at Juba was a big mandate, as the area was extremely remote and it was in most cases impossible to get in and out of the country,” recalls Anderson, who devised communication links between the university and local villages using two-way radios. “It was a bold move for a university back then, and to say it was perilous is quite an understatement.”
Anderson and SFU colleagues travelled between SFU and Juba for over four years in between two of the country’s major civil wars, working with little food and often in poor conditions.
“We were a group of committed researchers who genuinely wanted to make a difference, even though the conditions were far from great,” recalls Anderson, who spent weeks on the logistics just to get into the country. The researchers typically entered with no set plan for getting back out, but Anderson always found a way.
“Applied international research was not yet something a lot of universities were doing,” he adds. “But we saw it as an opportunity, not to bring solutions but to share expertise that would enable the people to focus on their own self-sufficiency and enhance self-determination.”
Despite desperate conditions – Anderson was sick for a year after they finally pulled out – success came, but slowly. “It took us three years to negotiate with the government and security officials for a radio link between Khartoum and Juba,” recalls Anderson, whose team eventually established an amateur radio station. “Today they are facing new challenges, developing, among many things, its communication systems.”
Shortly after the news of the 2011 Sudanese referendum, which saw southern Sudan vote for independence, Anderson learned that Juba’s vice-chancellor, Professor Aggrey Abate, was coming to Ottawa for a state-arranged visit. With thoughts of returning to his Sudanese research, three decades later, he travelled to meet with Abate to discuss possibilities.
Since then Sudan has faced growing challenges, and with other projects to continue in B.C. and further afield, Anderson has put the idea on hold. But he hasn’t dismissed it completely. “I first heard the news about Sudan’s referendum on the radio, and the report included students singing – they were from Juba,” he recalls. “It brought tears to my eyes. Not a week passes that I don’t think about Sudan and the work we did there. It’s why I’ve spent so much of my life doing what I do. Now, their needs are even greater.”
Anderson can’t say when he’ll be able to return, but it’s a safe bet he will try. And that would bring a far-reaching career that has impacted the lives of so many full circle.