Champion for lifelong learning wins leadership award

April 04, 2022

Officially, Patricia Graca is the director of enrollment and student services for Lifelong Learning, SFU’s non-credit registrar. But unofficially, the recipient of SFU’s 2021 Staff Achievement Award for Leadership is so much more. She’s an inspiring coach, an exacting project manager, a fearless change manager, a visionary systems steward—and a fierce champion for Lifelong Learning students and staff.

“Pat’s commitment to excellence is legendary among the Lifelong Learning team,” says dean Julia Denholm. “She is a superb leader to her team, an exemplary leader within our unit, and a manager of the utmost integrity and skill.”

With 26 years of experience at SFU, Graca has become Lifelong Learning’s go-to person. “Everyone knows that Pat is the person to ask if you have a question—about anything,” adds Denholm.

In fact, “ask Pat” is a common refrain in the Lifelong Learning office. As the unit’s unofficial archivist, Graca maintains an impeccable filing system housing decades’ worth of documents. At a moment’s notice, she’s been known to pull out the exact memo needed to answer the question at hand. “I have an elephantine memory for details,” she laughs.

Beyond her vast institutional knowledge, Graca’s innate good sense and considered opinions are highly sought after. She can see the big picture as well as the smallest of details, often at the same time. The impact of her expertise appears everywhere, from the choice of office chairs to the people sitting in them—she’s contributed to the hiring of dozens of staff.

“Her role allows her to take a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening across the unit,” says program director Shanthi Besso, who has worked with Graca for over 15 years. “She is often able to identify something that may be going sideways before it becomes a real problem.”

When Graca joined SFU in 1996, her first job was to package course materials for mailing to correspondence students. Much has changed over the years, but she remains energized by one passion: to provide learners beyond the traditional university student with access to flexible, high-quality education.  

For Graca, improving access for students means continually improving systems and processes to meet evolving needs. Not only can she pinpoint an issue with laser focus, but she can be depended on to lead the way in fixing it. Among her most impressive achievements, she transformed the unit’s once-haphazard registration process into a streamlined centralized system that’s now used for all non-credit registrations across the university.

Graca leads by example, setting an exceptionally high standard for her own work that inspires others to elevate their own work. “I do put people through the paces,” she chuckles, admitting she can be a tough taskmaster. Yet she’s always quick to praise a job well done.

When told she’d been chosen for the Staff Achievement Award, she confesses to being “blown away.”

“I have a lot of respect and admiration for my colleagues, so I’m deeply humbled,” says Graca. “I’m not one for the limelight, but I appreciate that my work is being recognized.”

She may not relish the spotlight, but her contributions haven’t gone unnoticed. On top of a workload that would overwhelm anyone less organized, she belongs to several committees across SFU, building connections and speaking up for the needs of Lifelong Learning and its students.

SFU’s interim chief information officer Keith Fong serves on various IT committees with Graca and values her unique perspective: “She brings an open mind, creative solutions, advocacy for her team and for students in general, and consistently ensures the committees look toward the bigger picture.”

Despite her photographic memory and superhuman ability to execute multiple complex tasks at once, Graca is no heartless machine. With her ready laugh and warm, genuine manner, it’s clear she cares deeply about both her work and the people around her.

“She never forgets the humans behind the processes, and that compassion flavours everything she does, which makes people feel important,” says Kali Charambura, a member of Graca’s enrollment services team.

Thinking ahead like any good leader, Graca is now making plans to “download” herself, transferring her knowledge to ensure Lifelong Learning continues to thrive without her when she retires—someday.

But who could ever replace Pat Graca? “Oh, there’s somebody else out there like me,” she smiles.

Except there really isn’t.

—By Kim Mah