A Community of Scholars

May 27, 2004, vol. 30, no. 3



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Renu Sangha, Matthew Schum and Basia Pakula have all made their mark during their university careers.

Sangha has overcome auditory and speech challenges to form a non-profit organization for families with hearing impaired children.

Matthew Schum immersed himself in artistic and cultural endeavours, while Basia Pakula took on an increasingly demanding leadership role in residence life.

Renu Sangha
Matthew Schum
Basia Pakula


Renu Sangha

Renu Sangha doesn't let conventions or obstacles stand in her way. Not only is she a woman graduating from a male-dominated program in information technology, but she was also the first deaf student to attend Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus.

“I was told that it's rare for a woman to major in information technology,” says Renu of her experience. “But I love math, science and art and the IT program gave me the opportunity to combine all three.”

Despite her speech and auditory challenges, Sangha excelled academically and has used her learning experiences at SFU Surrey to help others. “I learned how to work in a team which really helped me out as president of the Deaf Indo-Canadian organization.”

Inspired by her own childhood experiences, Sangha joined the non-profit organization four years ago to serve families with hearing-impaired children. “It was a wild trip growing up in an all-white school and being a deaf Indian girl.”

Sangha speaks at various schools and workshops. “I act as a role model for deaf Indian children and encourage them in academics because it's rare to see a deaf student in university.”

She credits the school of interactive arts and technology with encouraging her to apply her skills in areas she cares about. “I was given a chance as a research assistant to work on a project of my interest - American sign language recognition via web conferencing,” says Sangha. “It was very challenging!”

Sangha hopes one day to teach deaf students. In the meantime, her first priority is to travel. “I love travelling,” she says. “I want to do it as much as I can before I settle down.”

Matthew Schum

Matthew Schum was close to finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, three years ago, when a trip north put him on a longer road to his goal at Simon Fraser University.

A trip to Portland to visit a friend turned into a side trip north where Schum, a Minneapolis, Minnesota resident, says he “fell in love with Vancouver.” An exchange program between SFU and the University of Minnesota became Schum's ticket to study in Vancouver.

Schum fell much further into education-related debt than he had planned and weathered what he calls “a consistent barrage of anti-American sentiment in Canada.”

Coming from an average income family, he worried constantly about how he would support himself. As an international student, he wasn't eligible for work off campus. Now graduating with a bachelor of arts in art and culture studies, Schum is philosophical.

“The extra challenges paid off,” says Schum because of “some of SFU's excellent teachers and opportunities to grow at SFU and in Vancouver.”

Schum credits Denise Oleksijczuk, assistant professor of art history, and Paymen Vahabzadeh, adjunct professor of sociology, with helping him crystallize his views. Schum learned, through Oleksijczuk, that the history of western culture is encoded in contemporary art.

Vahabzadeh, a national award winning doctoral graduate of SFU's sociology department, taught Schum the challenges of social change. “Their creative thinking helped me clarify what I would like to contribute as a student of contemporary culture,” adds Schum, whose grades went up and stayed above 4.0, during the last year.

Outside the classroom, Schum immersed himself in cultural and artistic endeavors. As the features editor for SFU's student newspaper, Schum encouraged gritty analysis of controversial and alternative arts and cultural issues.

Schum co-hosted a weekly music program on campus radio, played drums in a touring local band and helped found the collective for art and culture studies students at SFU.

Schum also worked as a teaching assistant, a job usually reserved for graduates, and as a tour guide at the Vancouver art gallery. He is off to New York for the summer as a curatorial intern at the Museum of Modern Art.


Basia Pakula

Basia Pakula's nerves are a little frayed, worrying about how her convocation speech will go.

“I'm not a public speaker,” says the Polish Simon Fraser University graduand. But anyone who knows Pakula also knows that she shines best when challenged to “think outside the box,” as she puts it.

While working on her honours bachelor of arts in political science with a minor in economics and arts co-op certificate, Pakula held down at least two, and sometimes three, jobs to make ends meet.

“I am grateful for the financial challenges I have had to face,” says Pakula who has supported herself and her education for five years. Her single mother in Poland lives on less than what would be considered a poverty line wage in B.C. “My tight finances are largely what have made me who I am today,”

Most of Pakula's salaried jobs involved living and working in student residence. As a resident assistant, a community adviser and finally an area coordinator in SFU's residence life program, Pakula took on increasingly demanding and responsible leadership roles.

The program tries to foster a sense of community and social responsibility among students in residence.

While hitting the books, Pakula, a United World College graduate, developed and implemented programs to help students deal with life's issues, such as sex, race, stress and gender-bias.

She frequently rallied together nine peers under her supervision to deal with tense situations, such as noise complaints, a flood or a depressed student in the wee hours of the morning.

Asked how she managed to garner three major scholarships and do an honours thesis while working in residence, and elsewhere on campus,

Pakula responds passionately. “My jobs in residence were helping me to grow as a leader and I know I do my best work under pressure. It makes me treasure every minute and hour of life and use it to the fullest, whether it's dealing with papers, friends or life's issues.”

Pakula, a recipient of the C.D. Nelson memorial graduate scholarship for outstanding scholastics, is now entering SFU's master in public policy program.

She hopes to one day marry her passion for academics with her dedication to community leadership by developing progressive public policies.


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