At first glance, it’s a desk like any other. But slide open the drawer and you’ll see an anecdotal history of student life at UC.
In 1954, the Sir Daniel Wilson Residence was opened and one of its first residents, the late Arvo Valiaho inscribed his name, hometown, tuition fees, year of study, and a comment (“first occupant”) onto the desk in his room—inspiring generations of students who came after him to do the same.
We tracked down some of the undersigned and found that—for a bunch of graffiti artists—they’re a remarkably successful lot.
John Geddes (BA 1984 UC)
Ottawa Bureau Chief, Maclean’s
Hometown: Cochenour, Ontario
Tuition in 1980-81: $2,130
While he encouraged his fellow students to take it easy (his desk inscription reads, simply, “relax”) John Geddes does not appear to have taken his own advice—not as an intellectually curious undergraduate, and certainly not today as the Ottawa Bureau Chief at Maclean’s.
“My first day at UC I got up at six in the morning because I was so excited,” he says. “Coming from a gold mining town of 800 people, I threw myself into the city. I spent a lot of time in bookstores, in art galleries, in cafés.” All that coffee fuelled late-night conversations which Geddes now considers “the backbone of [my] education.
“Ninety percent of what I care to know, I learned in conversation with someone smarter than me, between the hours of two and five a.m.,” he says.
After completing a combined specialist in philosophy and English at UC, Geddes earned a master’s in journalism at the University of Western Ontario. He worked for small newspapers in Brampton and Thunder Bay before landing a position at the now-defunct Financial Post, which brought him to Ottawa to report on Parliament Hill.
In 1990, he started at Maclean’s on the politics and policy beat, taking a mid-career break in 2002-03 to pursue a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. The program gives select journalists free run of Harvard, its courses and resources.
Geddes is also the author of a novel, The Sundog Season (Turnstone Press, 2005), a coming-of-age story about a small-town boy from Northern Ontario, which received the City of Ottawa Book Award. He plans to write a second novel, and travel more widely.
He urges current students to do what inspires them and make the most of their precious undergraduate years. “Ignore all advice about possible career paths. Study what you find most interesting,” he says, adding, “And spend as little time as possible on social media…. For the rest of your life, no one is going to let you spend all day reading about politics and history.”
Kathleen Scherf (BA 1982 UC)
Professor and Academic Lead,
Thompson Rivers University Programs, Europe
Kamloops, British Columbia
Hometown: Oshawa, Ontario
Tuition in 1978-79: $1,824
“Party on!” is perhaps not the kind of advice you’d expect from a future academic, but that’s exactly what Kathleen Scherf inscribed on her desk as a fun-loving undergraduate. Today, as Professor and Academic Lead for Thompson Rivers University Programs, Europe, her advice to students is equally enthusiastic: “Take the opportunity to study internationally while you are still an undergraduate. Visit your study abroad office!”
After completing her undergraduate degree in English, Scherf earned a doctorate at the University of British Columbia and held increasingly senior faculty positions at the University of New Brunswick, the University of Calgary, and Thompson Rivers University. In her current role, she builds collaborative academic programs with partner universities in Europe, with a focus on double degrees.
Her fondest memories of University College include exploring its architecture and studying Shakespeare with Professor Alexander Leggatt (BA 1962 UC), a world-renowned expert on the Bard. “I have so many good memories of UC,” she says. “We thought Saturday Night Live”—created by fellow UC alumnus Lorne Michaels (BA 1966 UC)—“was absolutely incredible, and watched it in the Common Room every weekend.
“In second year, I had a quad-facing room—very desirable—and remember putting my new speakers out my window, playing the Stones’ new album, Some Girls, which we also thought was incredible—especially while playing frisbee.
“University College was so beautiful, I loved being there.” She recently had the chance to visit, when her eldest son graduated with a master’s in public policy from U of T this summer.
Diane Gorsky (BSc 1980 UC)
Associate Dean, Operations and Policy
Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Hometown: London, Ontario
Tuition in 1977-78: $1,670
As a psychology student at UC, Diane Gorsky likely could not have predicted what she now describes as her “fairly nonlinear” career path. She followed up her undergrad with a master’s in social work and later, an MBA, both from the University of Toronto, and worked in leadership positions in government, consulting, and the life sciences industry before landing in academic administration.
In her current role as Associate Dean, Operations and Policy, at the Dalhousie University Faculty of Medicine, she oversees strategic planning, finance, communications, IT, and human resources, just to name a few of her wide-ranging responsibilities. It’s unsurprising, then, that she has been reading up on mindful leadership, “especially as it relates to teamwork in complex organizations,” she explains.
Away from the office, Gorsky enjoys practicing yoga, swimming, and exploring Nova Scotia's coast and countryside. She plans to build a cottage on St. Margaret’s Bay in her adopted province.
Her fondest memories of UC include time spent with “unique, talented, and quirky friends” and Reznikoff’s, a now-defunct weekly pub night held in the basement of University College’s Laidlaw wing during the late 1970s. “I feel incredible nostalgia for those days,” she says.
Gorsky didn’t inscribe a comment onto her desk in Sir Dan’s, but when asked for her advice to current students, she quotes Confucius: “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”