By Allen M. Quinn
Overcoming unexpected personal obstacles and persevering when times get tough has been graduate student Elaine Harder’s motto throughout her life.
Graduating this fall from SFU’s Faculty of Education with a master’s in arts education, Harder’s foray into autobiographical research led her on a fascinating life-changing personal and academic journey into her past, while also shaping her future as a teacher and researcher.
Prior to studying at SFU, Harder worked as both a sign-language interpreter and stand-up comic until the unexpected death of her mother.
“My mother died suddenly… and everything just stopped,” says Harder. “I took a few years off and re-thought my life.”
Re-evaluation led to the realization that she needed to be involved in the arts and to go back to school. In 2005, she came to SFU, taking a bachelor of arts (BA), followed by the professional development program (PDP), before deciding to continue her education further with a master of arts (MA) in arts education.
“The MA in arts education appealed to me because it asked students to explore lived experience as a starting point and explore not only my teaching practice but my artistic practice as well.”
This blend of teaching and art would come together for Harder in the most unexpected medium: community radio. Harder attended a weekend workshop in New York City, called “Making Your Dreams Happen” with facilitator Barbara Sher, author of Wishcraft, where it was suggested Harder start her own radio show.
“I had no background or training in media or radio production. … Two weeks later, at SFU, I got off the elevator on the wrong floor. Within minutes, I was standing in front of CJSF (the community radio station at SFU’s Burnaby campus) and within the year, I was producing my own radio show that would become the action site of research for my thesis.”
Producing, hosting, and creating The Arts Edge weekly was a challenging, yet life-changing experience for Harder.
“I’ve met so many interesting and inspiring people through radio and have also discovered my flair for storytelling. I absolutely love radio and producing radio, and from the get-go, I knew that radio was taking me somewhere great.”
While working on her show, Harder began a new segment called “Radio Tales,” inspired by the music she was playing.
“I found myself frequently ‘on air’ playing music in which I discovered that many of my memories were held within music,” says Harder, who began writing down these memories while the music was playing. She later shared these personal narratives in her thesis and on the show and led her to research community radio, story, and autobiography.
Unfortunately, a major accident resulted in a five-year period of multiple surgeries, significant pain and home-confinement. The silver lining was that radio, through the power of home production, could travel with her. What some may have seen as a major setback, Elaine used to enrich her research. “My thesis and my ideas got to simmer for an extra five years – I think this has made the world of difference in what I have written.”
Lynn Fels, SFU Education professor and Harder’s supervisor, says she was excited when Harder asked if she could bring radio into her thesis.
“We didn’t know the medical challenges that Elaine would face, her continued commitment to complete her thesis, nor that COVID-19 was just around the corner and that she would be defending her thesis on Zoom, but she did it,” says Fels.
It has been a long and, at times, difficult journey for Harder to get to graduation but her story demonstrates that anything is possible through passion, perseverance and the ability to see the silver linings.
“When our artist practice, and our teaching, is informed from a place of lived experience, we create and teach from the inside out which in turn, makes creating, teaching and learning an authentic practice,” says Harder.
Virtual Fall Convocation
SFU's Virtual Fall Convocation runs Oct. 22-23. For more information and event details, visit sfu.ca/convocation.