A lasting imprint on my life


November 2015: I’m in a hotel conference room in Nairobi, listening to practice presentations being given by 16 participants in an Environmental Training-of-Trainers (ToT) program. It is the final session after three days of lively presentations, interactive exercises, and case studies that I designed for these development professionals on integrating environmental sustainability into poverty reduction. On the final day, they are learning how to train others upon returning to their home countries in Asia and Africa.

In 2016, I will mark 30 years as an environmental consultant working in planning, international development, capacity development and training, and stakeholder engagement. What I learned from my B.Ed. and Professional Development Program 35 years ago (1980 grad!) is woven into my approach to all of this work. For example, the Nairobi workshop and another the previous week in Istanbul, were a continuation of a decade of work with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, a large Canadian development NGO. I based the ToT 100% on the participatory, learner-centered principles and practices I absorbed at Simon Fraser University.  My organizational, communication, and facilitation skills, also strengthened during my B.Ed., have also helped in my work with government, NGO, and private sector clients in 26 countries, from local to global levels.

Kenya workshop November 2015

Before there were environmental studies programs, I fashioned my own by doing a B.Ed.,with minors in geography, biology, and environmental education. This, combined with the PDP, an MA in Planning, and three years at the B.C. Ministry of Environment, was the foundation for my consulting business. Although I first expected to focus on environmental planning, the education specialization provided a “value-added” skill set that set me apart from other consultants and, 30 years on, I now occupy a niche in which I combine those skills with technical environmental knowledge.

I had two sets of SFU mentors. The first were the brilliant, provocative teacher trainers who ran the Joyce Street/Hastings street “alternative” program out of two Burnaby storefronts in the late 70s. They probed our preconceived ideas and showed us how to “subordinate teaching to learning.” They include the late John Trivett and Sandy Dawson, and the innovative teachers they attracted.

India field work 2008

The second were the cutting-edge faculty who ran the Environmental Education program, including Milt McClaren, Brian Herrin, Harvey Walker, and Al Whitney, all still active. Their experiential, curiosity-based approach to education, novel at the time, deeply influenced my work. My most memorable B.Ed. experience was their Summer Institute in Environmental Education, held in Kamloops that year. There we learned about experiential education through immersion in natural and urban environments! This included 24 hours of solo camping and passing a night alongside shift workers in Kamloops—in my case, a gas station attendant and a taxi driver—as part of social studies.

SFU in the late 70s was brimming with engaging programs and inspiring faculty. Those years, embedded as they were in the 60s culture/counterculture of “question authority,” and create and innovate, have left a lasting imprint on my professional and personal life.

Susan Abs
PDP 1978, B.Ed. 1980

Read all the stories from the 1980s