Memorial University is losing a bright light and one of its most student-centred employees with the retirement of Gwen Hanson.
Ms. Hanson, a senior staff accountant with Financial and Administrative Services (FAS), has spent her Memorial career going the extra mile to ensure students' success.
On paper, her role has her involved with supervising staff in the Cashier's Office and receiving tuition revenue; however, in reality her commitment to Memorial and to the students she interacts with daily has seen Ms. Hanson develop connections with many students over the years with some even considering her part of their extended family. Upon graduating, a number of students have written Ms. Hanson letters thanking her for the assistance she has provided them and for the compassion and understanding she has shown.
How has she made a difference for so many? In her role, Ms. Hanson has patiently listened to students, been a shoulder to lean on, offered friendly advice and sometimes delivered tough love. If she hasn't been able to help a student personally, she has reached out to contacts she has developed throughout the university to see if assistance was available. While many of the issues Ms. Hanson has dealt with over the years have been primarily of a financial nature, students have also relied on her for many differing and even personal reasons.
"Students have come to me for everything," Ms. Hanson said. "Because I am a mom and come from a big family, I always want to help. If I can identify and remove any obstacles to make the experience of attending Memorial and getting an education a positive one, I will do what I can. I feel good when I go home at the end of the day knowing that I have made a difference."
"While Gwen is helpful to all, she has paid special attention over the years to the international students she has come in contact with," said Gary Pike, associate director, FAS. "Recognizing that some of these students may need help adjusting to cultural changes and dealing with the pressure of being away from home and loved ones, she has been a supportive and caring presence treating them with the same care and compassion as she would her own children. Some have even called her their Canadian mother."
One such student is Joseph Octavious. Mr. Octavious came to Canada as a landed immigrant in 2007. Upon his arrival in St. John's, he was captivated by a welcome sign that he saw on his drive into the city with the words Memorial University: Where People and Ideas Become. This sign, and the words upon it, became the stimulus for his desire to attend Memorial. In September of that year, Mr. Octavious enrolled in Memorial as a full-time student only to discover that he wasn't eligible for provincial student loans. In making arrangements to pay for the courses that he dropped in the middle of the semester, Mr. Octavious found himself in Ms. Hanson's office.
"This magnanimous and altruistic woman immediately began to counsel me relentlessly on how to stay focused on the pursuit of my degree as if I were her biological child. This really inspired me to aspire for higher goals in life," he said.
Ms. Hanson advised Mr. Octavious to begin a job search which resulted in him accepting a position in Alberta where he maintained contact with her and sent her $1,000 each month that she put into his university account until 2009 when he had enough money saved to pay for his studies. Upon returning to Memorial, Mr. Octavious continued to seek Ms. Hanson's advice.
"Had this wonderful, caring and loving woman not stepped in the direction of my life, I would have never achieved my bachelor of arts degree as well as my certificate in criminology and even become a potential candidate for a master's degree this fall," he said. "Gwen has become the impetus to what I am becoming in Canada which is an individual who never settles for less but rather who has been inspired by his mother Gwen Hanson to always aim for greater heights in life."
The appreciation shown by Mr. Octavious has been mirrored over the years by many other students and their families.
"Numerous parents have made it a point to meet Gwen when they come to St. John's to attend their child's graduation and tell her how much they have appreciated the guidance she provided their son or daughter," said Deborah Collis, director, FAS. "She has truly made a significant contribution to the student life experience at Memorial that is unparalleled."
Ms. Hanson's dedication to Memorial and to its students has not gone unnoticed. In December 2013, she was awarded Memorial's President's Award for Exemplary Service. After more than 17 years of service, Ms. Hanson is officially retiring on May 30, 2014. Ever dedicated, she said, "Working till the end of May, has given me the chance to be involved with convocation one last time."