SFU English alumnus Rolanda Chen explores the road not taken

June 10, 2024

More than 25 years ago, Rolanda Chen wanted to get an English degree. However, in the mid-1990s, Canada was emerging from a recession, and she was concerned that an arts degree might lead to poor job prospects. Ultimately, she graduated with her Bachelor of Commerce from the University of British Columbia. Although she’s had a rewarding and successful career in human resources, she always wondered what it would have been like if she’d done her degree in English. In 2019, she stopped wondering and pursued her passion at Simon Fraser University.

“I came back to school with the goal of enjoying my educational experience,” says Chen, who only took English courses that piqued her interest.

She gravitated to Canadian and contemporary literature classes. One of her favourites, taught by Dr. Niall McKenzie, focused on Atlantic Canadian authors.

“It was super fascinating because I’ve been out to Atlantic Canada twice,” she says. “These books were written over 100 years ago, but they’re still examples of really fantastic storytelling. The depiction of nature, the landscape, the challenges of a fishing community—that is still very much real today.”

Chen credits SFU English for opening her eyes to many fantastic Canadian artists, writers, magazines, and collections she would not have otherwise explored.

Dr. Nicky Didicher, who taught Chen children’s literature, spoke favourably about her excellent research and writing skills, as well as her contributions to classroom discussion.

“Rolanda has a remarkable intellect and an ability to design and carry out independent research,” says Didicher. “Her writing has clarity, ease, and impact. She also supports and encourages her peers and adds to class discussion without dominating the room. In fact, I have invited her to give a guest talk about one of her research projects to a class this semester [summer 2024].”

While Chen enjoyed completing her English degree, she faced challenges as a mature student.

“The struggle for me was time management,” she says. “My life was a fine balance of working, parenting, looking after and helping my parents, volunteering in my community, as well as finishing my degree and maintaining a high GPA. If something was out of whack, then it became challenging.”

However, she advises other mature students not to lose sight of their educational goals. It may take some time to achieve them, but that’s okay.

“Even if you only take one course a semester, or take a semester or two off, you can get to graduation if you keep grinding away,” she says.

Throughout her time at SFU, Chen’s sons watched her studying, reading, researching, and writing papers. They helped her stay motivated and she’s glad they saw her go through the experience of completing her degree.

“I thought about quitting every single semester,” she says. “A lot of the reason I didn’t was just to be able to point to my boys and say, ‘Learning is important. Working hard is important. Doing your best is important.’”

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