Community Issues

Goal of SFU graduation kept cancer patient going

Left to right: Donald Faulkner, Herb Wood, Elizabeth Norris, Helen Wussow (dean of SFU Lifelong Learning),
Don Watson (Annie Watson's husband, back), Norma Tiessen (front), Donna Hollman (Annie Watson's daughter),
and Dmitro Sawchuk at the Seniors Program graduation ceremony in April 2011. Photo by Greg Ehlers.
January 10, 2012
Annie Watson. Photo by Greg Ehlers.

By Amy Robertson

Studying at SFU gave Annie Watson something even more precious than the usual benefits of learning as you age, like stress reduction and improved memory.

It gave her a reason to live.

The spunky, passionate woman, who would have been in her 80s today, loved to learn, but growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan made her unable to move beyond Grade 8.

Later, she married a soldier, and moving from place to place kept her from attending university—but her lifestyle never stopped her from learning and discovering. Over the years, Annie studied to become a nurse’s aid, and took courses in stained glass, cake decorating, and other crafts.

Annie’s daughter, Donna Hollman, says her mother had “an infectious attitude about life.” Wherever she and her family went, Annie would learn whatever she could to help her understand the country in which they lived.

The family moved to Germany after Donna finished Kindergarten. They lived in an apartment in a large farmhouse, and everyone spoke German, a language the little girl couldn’t understand.

As an only child with no friends in the new country, Donna felt incredibly lonely one day, she says.

“Mum held up a German bus schedule and said, ‘You and I are going to go exploring.’ From that day forward, I learned to rise above sadness [and] seek newness with a sense of courage and curiosity.”

Cancer diagnosis doesn't hold student back from her studies

Decades later, even after a lifetime of learning, Annie still wanted more. She and her husband retired in Surrey in 1988. In 2005, at the age of 76, she finished high school, which only whetted her appetite. Even a diagnosis of ovarian cancer a year later couldn’t hold her back.

“I’m too busy for this!” she would say.

In 2009, she began taking courses through the Seniors Program at Simon Fraser University Continuing Studies, and she discovered a new love—opera.

“She blossomed,” her husband, Don, says.

Even as her health declined, Annie was determined to finish a certificate in the liberal arts, spending hours on her written assignments. After chemotherapy, she would often get on a bus to come to SFU’s downtown Vancouver campus for classes—and she never complained.

Her husband believes that completing her liberal arts certificate is what kept her going—it gave her something to look forward to.

In one of her final months, Annie and her daughter travelled to Victoria to see Handel's Rodelinda, an opera, in spite of Annie’s illness—she simply had to see it and talk to her instructor about it.

“All I want is to graduate,” she would tell her oncologist. “Can you make sure I graduate?”

When it became apparent that Annie might not get her wish, her family asked administrators in the Seniors Program whether they might honour Annie’s work somehow.

The program staff decided that Annie would graduate with an honorary certificate on April 21, 2011—whether she could attend the ceremony or not.

Student's story a profound testimony to the power of learning

“It was not a hard decision to make,” says Rosalyn Kaplan, who directs the Seniors Program at SFU Continuing Studies, explaining that Annie’s love for education “symbolizes what the Seniors Program is all about.”

Rosalyn calls Annie’s story “a profound testimony not just to her strength, but to the power of learning.”

Annie passed away on January 13—four months before her graduation—knowing that she’d fulfilled her dream.

On the day of Annie’s graduation ceremony, Annie’s husband and daughter accepted her liberal arts certificate and an SFU Alumni Association pin.

“They just made sure she was able to fulfill her aspirations,” Donna says. ”She can be at such peace right now—because she did it. She accomplished her goal ...

“I know she was with us that day … and very, very proud.”