From the 1990s to now: urban studies grad discovers learning has no time limit

June 03, 2024

In 1991, Ann Ball started life as an undergraduate armed with her very first computer and dot matrix printer. She also spent hours in the library conducting research, using microfiche as her search engine. Fast forward more than two decades, Ball decides to apply to graduate school at SFU. Though adjusting to the 21st-century academic environment was challenging, she completed her Master of Urban Studies (MURB). The knowledge and skills she gained during the program positively impacted her work with refugees and has led to her lasting passion for lifelong learning.

While completing a master’s degree had always been a “bucket list goal” for Ball, she selected SFU’s Urban Studies Program for more complex reasons.

“I’ve worked as a professional fundraiser in the social justice space for many years,” Ball says. “I felt that I was known as the ‘money person’ and I really wanted to broaden and improve my understanding of the social issues I worked on." 

"I felt that the urban studies program was at the intersection of so many of the issues I cared about, so it seemed to be the right fit for me.”

Once she began the program, Ball discovered a lot had changed since she had last studied at university. For example, she describes the “amazing” moment she realized most of the library collection was accessible online. Also, she found it challenging to relearn how to write academic papers.

“At work, I write reports based on bullet points, and that just doesn’t cut it anymore [in university],” she says.

Ball credits the assistance she received from the Student Learning Commons and her supervisor, professor Karen Ferguson, when it came to improving her academic writing.

During her master’s studies, Ball was working full-time as the executive director at New Hope Community Services, a non-profit organization that provides transitional housing for refugees. Her work was especially challenging, as she had to lead the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was working hard to make sure we had the funds to survive whatever COVID would be, and I didn’t want to lay off any staff,” she says. “Additionally, New Hope is a low-English environment, so we had to communicate what was happening in many different languages so the families could understand public health regulations and what we could and couldn’t do.”

Though many urban studies students work full-time during their studies, Ferguson notes that Ball’s work “required an unusual level of commitment. Nevertheless, she committed equally to her studies, demonstrating a remarkable level of engagement and professionalism that contributed a great deal to the success of the program.”

Ball’s thesis was tied to her work as well. She focused on the role social citizenship plays in the settlement of refugee claimants who were able to access transitional housing upon their arrival to Canada. She felt her research would also help to identify where more funding could positively impact the settlement journey for refugee claimants. However, conducting this kind of research came with challenges.

“My first interview for my thesis was difficult,” says Ball. “The person I was interviewing was in a precarious position and looking for help. It was really difficult for me to separate myself from my job and focus on my role as a researcher, which wasn’t to solve her problem.”

Ball also experienced the loss of both her parents, within 29 days of each other, while taking classes virtually during the pandemic.

“I took URB 696 in the spring 2022 semester with Dr. Tiffany Muller Myrdahl,” she says. A week into classes my mum died, and ten days later my dad had a stroke. He died 29 days after my mum. I spent three months in Ontario so I could be with my dad, host a double funeral, and deal with their estates."

During this time, I don’t think I would have made it through the semester without my instructor's [Tiffany Muller Myrdahl’s] kindness and support.”

Despite these challenges, Ball successfully completed her MURB. She loved her academic experience so much she sought out a job in an academic setting, and now works as the Senior Vice President of Advancement at Trinity Western University. She has also stayed in touch with some of the refugee families she met at New Hope, and in the future, she plans to do volunteer work with refugees. She is considering applying to a PhD program too.

“I’m working at a university now, so that changes your perspective on education…and next time I graduate, I want a floppy hat.”

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