Helen Han Wei Luo: Robert C. Brown Award Winner

July 13, 2020

Congratulations to Philosophy Major, Helen Han Wei Luo, who is one of the winners of the Robert C. Brown Award this year. Helen, who is finishing her final classes this term, will graduate this fall on the Dean and President’s Honour Roll with majors in Philosophy and Political Science, and an extended minor in French, She receives the award for academic excellence combined with outstanding leadership.

A Brief Bio: In Her Own Words

“I've been a Writing and Learning Peer at the Student Learning Commons for the last 4 terms, as well as an executive member of the SFU Debate Society for the last three years, with an abundance of judging and competitive experience. I've studied abroad twice in my undergraduate career, first at the NATO College of Rome as a part of SFU's NATO field school, and later on exchange at the University of Strasbourg. Some notable awards I've received recently include the second place at the SFU Undergraduate Writing award (2018), a shortlist from the Brian Keenan Philosophy Prize (2019)  , and a longlist from the CBC Literary Prizes (2020). I've also recently been awarded a SSHRC grant for an MA in philosophy, which I am to start at UBC this fall.”

What does receiving the Robert C Brown Award mean to you?

What I really feel at the end of my undergraduate studies is gratitude; I’ve been lucky enough to have had an overwhelmingly positive experience, and have been rewarded for it. If there are to be ‘model’ students, I think they should be selected at least somewhat on the basis of how much fun and fulfillment they received from their education.

So, I’m going to answer this question intransigently - I had a lot of fun at SFU, and to me, receiving the Robert C Brown Award is a jovial affair. I’m being paid for having a great time!


Why Philosophy? and Other Tales

Helen has very generously shared some hints for students new to SFU Philosophy, giving advice for Future Philosophers to introduce them to the department and help optimize their experience at SFU.

Why choose philosophy?

In high school I was intellectually curious in a variety of disciplines, with a particular inquisitiveness towards questions with theoretical dimensions. For example, while I genuinely enjoyed studying classical music and fine arts, I was ultimately more invested in questions like “how does the mathematics of music work?” or “how does colour theory transfer across different mediums?” than I was in actual structured practice. This made me a very poor musician and artist. Ditto for the natural sciences.

I felt disengaged from the educational process—it didn’t seem to require any real, substantive critical thought—until I discovered political science. It was the one discipline I found that allowed a space for genuine, independent thinking, while being grounded in tangible research. However, it wasn’t until I had taken electives within the Philosophy department that I finally acquired the vocabulary to articulate what I really wanted to study… ah, so this is philosophy! Sign me up!

Why choose SFU Philosophy as a joint Major with Political Science and an extended French minor?

I chose SFU with the intention of joining the French Cohort program, which offered a very compelling package—bilingual studies, generous funding, specialized smaller classes, and international travel—for a career in international diplomacy.

However, after two years in Political Science that included a summer with the NATO Field School and an exchange term at the Strasbourg Institut d’Études Politiques, I declared a major in Philosophy. Even though I’d been totally invested in the independent research projects in Political Science, I felt that it was only because of shared similarities with my interests in Philosophy.

I have no regrets about my choice in majors – I loved French literature and linguistics and believe my studies in Political Science improved my capacity in being an engaged citizen and an informed political participant. I do not believe that my education at SFU would have been complete without an interdisciplinary element.

How useful is philosophy?

In my opinion, the question “how are you going to use your degree in Philosophy?” is a question wrongly asked. It’s not the case that skills in Philosophy directly translate in the way that skills in technical fields translate, and frankly, even if they did, I would not choose to work in a Philosophy factory.

Concepts and tools in Philosophy encourage systematic problem solving, independent research, clarity in writing, and capacity to address fundamental questions. I have often found that my ability to engage directly and critically with problems has been what elevated my work in French and Political Science, and in this sense I actively credit my courses in Philosophy for having helped me achieve academic success overall.

Philosophy, with all its interdisciplinary branches, is relevant in every field, and there is a philosophy for every academic discipline.

Do any moments in SFU Philosophy stand out?

Overall no, but I’ve noticed that professors have a strong tendency to apologize for their lack of artistic skill before embarking on a doomed mission to convey on the whiteboard whatever outlandish thought experiment was on the table.

Over the years I’ve seen many illustrations of trolley problems, Gettier cases, airplanes dropping bombs, cue balls hitting each other, and so on and so forth – none of which can be described as particularly aesthetically pleasing. This is an especially endearing memory because I’m convinced that nobody can draw an aesthetically pleasing rendition of a trolley problem, and especially not in front of a class and with a whiteboard marker.

It seems like a kind of faultless failing. And yet professors will continue to apologize when their drawing of “a meadow with a rock that looks like a sheep except there is another sheep behind the rock” fails to impress. However, it has made class time pass much more enjoyably.

Advice for Future Philosophers: What’s the best way to make the most of your time at SFU and get the most out of your courses?

1.       Make an active commitment to socialize and make friends. Joining clubs and specifically allocating time to attend meetings is a great way to meet new people. I know the university experience can be isolating as people find it difficult to socialize in a new environment, so make a real concerted effort.

2.       Actively ask questions in class and attend office hours; be open to asking for help. Academic success is not something that is achievable alone.

3.       Volunteer on campus, even if it’s just occasionally. Giving back to a community is possibly the best way to feel connected to it. It’s also a way of enriching the university experience beyond mere academia, but without the added stresses and commitments of employment.

4.       Be open-minded and flexible about your interests, especially in the first years. It’s very rare that what you studied at high school makes you aware of all the university disciplines available.

5.       Be open to switching your major if appropriate. It’s better to switch earlier than later. An open mind is important to academic and career fulfillment.