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Alumna and former drama teacher gives back to university

ALUMNA EXTRAORDINAIRE: Since her retirement, Maureen Somerville (BA 1969) has volunteered countless hours to help and support the University of Toronto Scarborough. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Lisa Boyes

Higher education has come a long way since the 1960s, and so has alumna Maureen Somerville, who first walked through the doors of the Scarborough campus four decades ago.

In fact, Somerville (BA 1969) was part of the first cohort of Canadian baby boomers to go on to higher education, in far greater numbers than previous generations. At the start of her first year, the Scarborough campus did not even exist.

“My classes were in what has become the medical science building on the St. George campus. Only in January 1966 did we come to the Andrews building, and it was catch-as-catch-can to fit the classes into the spaces that were completed by then -- the science labs.”

Perhaps it was fitting that Scarborough students began their studies in medical classrooms. A medical exam was required of all first-year students in those days —“but a dead horse could have passed it,” laughs Somerville.

She was one of about 190 students pursuing an undergraduate degree at Scarborough, most of them male. At that time, women were not encouraged to go to university, although a small number of them did, she said.

She loved many things about the experience, especially her inspiring English professors. The stigma that then existed against women studying medicine and engineering, for example, mostly didn’t affect her directly, since she was in the humanities stream, majoring in English and also studying languages, psychology and anthropology. After graduating here, she went on to the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and enjoyed a career as a high school teacher, first in English and later in drama.

Still, the academic limitations and segregation of males and females from that time cause her to say, “Today, students have a much better student experience overall than we did. There was no credit system — if you failed two subjects, you failed your year. It wasn’t unusual for our professors to invite us to their homes for play readings or wine and cheese, which was wonderful, perhaps because there wasn’t a large social infrastructure for students in those days. Women, of course, couldn’t even join Hart House until 1972. Now, there are so many clubs and organizations for students to be involved in, male and female. However, everybody was allowed to smoke anywhere on campus back then, even in the lecture halls!”

Perhaps it is Somerville’s appreciation for the opportunities afforded students today that has urged her into governance roles for U of T Scarborough and U of T broadly. “I guess I got drawn in, gradually!” via the Scarborough Alumni Association of the 1980s. When called upon, Somerville helped out at student orientations and various events.

The turning point came when she was invited to represent Scarborough on the College of Electors (COE) in 1993. The COE, with membership from all degree-granting divisions across U of T, elects the university’s chancellor and alumni members of U of T Governing Council. Once Somerville was nominated to the U of T Alumni Association Board of Governing Council and became VP of Governance, a role which means she was automatically placed in the role of chair of the COE. She could then get really involved in the governance process, which fascinates her.

Today, as an alumni member of Governing Council, Somerville sits on Academic Board and several committees of council. She has also served on a host of awards-selection committees and the Alumni Association of U of T Scarborough. She is currently on the U of T Senior Alumni Association Executive, and she even chairs the Music Committee at Hart House. Somerville is also a member of the President’s Circle, a group of special donors to U of T. The extent of her involvement can’t even be counted on two hands.

Although she is retired from teaching, she remains excited about her volunteer work for U of T, which keeps her almost as busy as a full-time job. Two things motivate her: the desire to give back to the institution that delivered her higher education, and the opportunity to affect university decision making. She says her parents were always a source of advice and encouragement, and her late father was instrumental in encouraging her to pursue a postsecondary Although her father passed away, “He would be so thrilled to see me on Governing Council he’d be busting his buttons.”

“I always wanted to be a high school drama teacher. I loved it. And now I get to work with the crème de la crème of the university -- the students, as well as teaching and non-teaching staff and administrators.”

“Maureen is generous with her time and shows a strong affinity to her alma mater,” says Kim Tull, manager, alumni relations at U of T Scarborough. “Like all great volunteers, she believes that what she does matters, not only to herself but to U of T Scarborough and to the wider community. She throws herself wholeheartedly into the task at hand, whether that means volunteering at an event, being an Alumni Governor, or sitting on a scholarship selection committee. Most importantly, Maureen understands that our alumni are the best ambassadors we have, and that means caring about the student experience and our community. Her commitment to giving back to the U of T Scarborough community is inspiring to all of us.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough