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Spotlight on alumni

By Bojan Furst

When the folks organizing a political science reunion scheduled to take place May 28-29 began looking for a keynote speaker, they did not have to look further than Memorial grad David Agnew. Currently, he serves as the president of Seneca College, the largest college in Canada. Previously he served as the ombudsman of Banking Services and Investments, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada, a consultant, chief of staff to the premier of Ontario, and, some time ago, as a journalist.

Agnew is the first one to say that his CV is anything but a straight road to success. “Journalism was a career ambition of mine from a very early age, probably because my father was a very successful journalist.”

He moved to St. John’s at the age of 17 to work with the Evening Telegram. It was to be his springboard for doing the kind of political reporting he aspired to one day to do, preferably in the nation’s capital. “I did not have any intention of going to Memorial when I first arrived to St. John’s. I thought, after a year or so, it was time to make my next career move. To be honest with you, I liked living in St. John’s so much that I thought if I went to university that would be a way to get at least three more years’ minimum of living in St. John’s and Newfoundland,” he said.

He worked throughout his poli-sci degree as a reporter and, after graduation, accepted a position with The Canadian Press. He also applied for a Canadian Parliamentary Internship in Ottawa. He was accepted and spent a portion of the internship working with MP Bob Rea who, at the time, served in the Opposition. He eventually went back to The Canadian Press, but a call from Rae brought him back into politics and, even though he did not know just yet, changed his career course. Bob Rea, of course, soon became the leader of the Ontario New Democrat Party and eventually formed the government. “It just became so interesting and compelling to stay that in the end I never did return to journalism.”

The NDP win came as a bit of a surprise to everybody, said Agnew, and the challenges ahead of the new government were substantial. “It was a very difficult time, but a great privilege to be in the government.” He served as the Secretary of Cabinet. He eventually moved on to a consulting position where he led a project on private-public partnerships.

The job Agnew describes as “marvelous” was the time he spent as the president and CEO of UNICEF Canada. His on-the-ground introduction to international relief and development happened in one of the most war-torn and underdeveloped places on the planet: Sierra Leone. He remembers that first trip to Africa vividly. What left one of the deepest impressions were the conversations he had with the parents in refugee camps. After putting together some sort of living quarters, the first thing they would do is build a school, recalled Agnew. “They understood that success of their children depends on their education. That is such a great wisdom.”

Soon, he was working in Liberia, Congo, Darfur, Zimbabwe and Indonesia during the tsunami aftermath. “Emergencies tend to dominate,” he said of his UNICEF work. And while that is the nature of relief work, he also worked on establishing strong relationships with Cambodia and Thailand in order to advance UNICEF’s priorities around child protection.

The work required a long and intense travel schedule. It eventually became too difficult to balance it with the needs of Agnew’s own young family and he decided another change was in order.

Today, he laughs at the fact that he is a president of a distinguished higher education institution such as Seneca College. By his own admission, nobody would peg him as academic material in his high school years. “I redeemed myself,” he said, but in all seriousness credits Memorial with much of his later success.

“There is a common thread to all of it and it is anchored at Memorial.”

Those attending the political science reunion will have a chance to participate in a series of events, including a talk by David Agnew as well as a panel discussion on social media and its role in the government and politics. For more information visit