Meet Dr. Susan O’Neill, SFU’s new dean of the faculty of education
By Emma Keeler-Dugas
Susan O’Neill brings an interesting mix of psychology, music and education to her new role as SFU’s dean of education.
“I’ve always been a curious person and I believe this led me to challenge myself in a number of different areas at different stages of my life: as a musician, an educator, a child counsellor, and a psychologist,” says O’Neill, an SFU education professor who has also served as the faculty’s associate dean, academic and research.
Before arriving at SFU in 2011, she held academic appointments at universities in Canada and the UK and was a visiting fellow at the University of Michigan, University of Melbourne and at Trinity College Dublin.
“I love the fact that academic work provides so many opportunities for following your interests, collaborating with and learning from others, and having a positive impact on others’ lives,” she says.
O’Neill has served on several national education and research advisory councils in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. and is currently involved in establishing a new international research grants award program.
Over the next five years, O’Neill will promote a community-first approach and encourage people to dream big.
What are three things we should know about you as you settle into your new role?
Let’s begin with one of my most important priorities: continuing to cultivate the people-centred and community-first approach we value so highly in the Faculty of Education. Genuine care, respect, generosity and appreciation for others is critical to supporting the faculty’s vision and mission. People who are connected to the faculty’s many diverse communities are its greatest asset and resource. That’s something I cherish and want to continue to lift up, support and celebrate.
Second, I’m passionate about the work we have underway, particularly in relation to our core values of equity, indigeneity and a culture of inquiry. I value processes that will help us to do this work “in a good way” by continually embedding into our policies and practices that which we learn from Indigenous worldviews, internationalization, interdisciplinarity and inclusiveness.
And finally, I value creativity in bringing about improvements and positive change. I want to encourage people to dream big, be forward-looking, and share with others all the great things we are doing to create positive learning, research and working environments across all three of our campus communities.
What do you want prospective and current students to know about the Faculty of Education at SFU?
The Faculty of Education is a welcoming place for students to learn and grow in their understanding of themselves, others and the world around them. Our dedicated faculty and staff are amazing people to work with, and I’m sure our students will find a sense of community during their studies. In such a rich and diverse environment, all students, faculty and staff share their understandings and aspirations in a common enterprise of learning. But no one is excluded. I also believe that by making the most of generosity, care, leadership and commitment, the faculty will continue to support the best possible student learning experience and educational outcomes.
What do you see as your biggest challenge?
One of the biggest challenges we face in today’s fast-paced and fast-changing world is to be able to make the best choices about where to focus our energy and resources. This isn’t easy when there is a seemingly constant stream of new opportunities and possibilities available. Add to this the fact that educators often find themselves at the front edge of making brave spaces for students that empower and cultivate trust and accountability. These spaces are necessary for engaging in experiences and intentional efforts to ensure that the choices we make are inclusive and meaningful for all.
In doing this work, I try to challenge myself and others to consider some key questions: How much space are we taking up in conversations? How do we actively improve access to educational opportunities? How much do we know about the people we are working with? What are our assumptions and from where do they originate? Who are we leaving behind?
In your work, what motivates you or brings you joy?
It gives me great joy to work in an environment that is filled with so many creative, caring and educationally motivated people. The students, faculty and staff that you come in contact with on a daily basis are the main reason I enjoy working on behalf of the faculty. At the heart of it all, the work is human-based and although each day is different it brings the promise of helping others to develop and grow while at the same time deepening one’s own growth and personal discovery. It is a role full of amazing possibilities!
Do you have any advice for students who are interested in education?
Education is a very broad enterprise, and students are often unsure about what to expect when beginning to study education as an academic discipline. Being a “teacher” or an educator is a noble aspiration but it is also important to realize that this extends far beyond K-12 education. Educators are active across the life course and in diverse sectors of the community. Opportunities for education research and practice are located all around us in online and offline life spaces. I would encourage students to be open to imagining new possibilities for themselves as part of their lifelong learning journey through studies in education.
Another often overlooked benefit of being involved in education is that it is connected to an ancient tradition of passing on to the next generation something of value. Today, that concept is known as ‘generativity’ and research suggests that people with more experience of generativity in their lives have better health and wellbeing outcomes. Although there are many challenges for those who pursue careers in education, it is tremendously rewarding and enriching.