Episode 30: Not Doing it Alone and Growing Through Connection with UVic President Kevin Hall

UVic President Kevin Hall is an innovative academic leader and civil engineer known for his strong commitment to sustainability, innovation, community engagement, and an unwavering belief in truth, respect and reconciliation, equitable access to education, and equity, diversity and inclusion. Throughout his career at three world-class institutions, Hall has served at many levels and functions—most recently as the Vice-President and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Global Engagement and Partnerships at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. Hall has made a global impact as a civil engineer with a focus on water quality, environmental monitoring and water and health in marginalized communities.

"University is about learning around the edges of the courses; it's not just about your courses."

President Kevin Hall

Waving, Not Drowning


Rebecca Gagan: Hi everyone. I’m Rebecca Gagan, and this is Waving, Not Drowning, a UVic Bounce podcast. Today’s episode is being recorded on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples.


In today’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning. I talk with Dr. Kevin Hall, University of Victoria’s president. When I asked Kevin if he could supply me with a bio so that I could use it to introduce him to listeners, he said, “all I really want you to say is just that Kevin is absolutely thrilled and honoured to be UVic’s eighth president.” Kevin shares his experience of being the first in his family to attend university. And he talks about some of the challenges of really trying to navigate this new context of the university and not really knowing how. He shares a powerful story of sitting in one of his first engineering classes and the professor introducing themselves as a doctor. And Kevin says that he immediately thought that he was in the wrong class and in the wrong program because he had thought that he was going into engineering and didn’t understand that the professor had the title of doctor because they had received a PhD and not because they were a medical doctor. Kevin’s story really lays bare the fact that knowing “How to University,” as Andrew Murray discusses in his episode, is contingent on so many factors, and it’s really one of the central challenges of making the transition to university.


And it’s something that really needs to be learned and navigated, and that so many students simply do not have that context when they come into university. Kevin talks about how he learned pretty quickly to get support from those around him, to collaborate, to learn from others still that he wasn’t having to do it alone. And in this conversation, he really emphasizes the importance of recognizing that you don’t have to go it alone, that this isn’t a path whereby there are rewards from a kind of individualistic perspective where you just battle through on your own, that so much is gained from working with others, from working in community.


Kevin shares his experience of being a student who was always concerned about how they would pay their tuition, that he didn’t come from a family that had a lot of money to support him through university financially, so he always had the stress of figuring out how he would work to pay for the tuition. And I think this is something that so many students, especially here in Victoria, can relate to. That, in addition to their studies, they are always working. He shares how it was as an undergrad that he really learned the importance of being open to diverse perspectives and of listening to others or Kevin, a key to thriving at university was working together and thriving together as a community. I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Dr. Kevin Hall, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.


Hi, Kevin. Thank you so much for being here today to share some of your own experience as a student. How are you doing?


Kevin Hall: Yeah, I’m doing really well. Rebecca, first of all, thanks for inviting me. I’m absolutely thrilled to do this. And I think it’s really important that students hear about some of their professors’ journeys, and so I’m doing really well. You know, this is a pandemic, of course, so it’s stressful for all of us. It’s meant a lot of really hard work for us at the university to make sure everybody’s going to have a good experience, whether it is the online experience we’ve just gone through for the last 16 months or whether it’s going to be this return to campus that we’re busy planning now, so it’s been a really busy time. You know, who would start a new job during a pandemic? You know, that was me. I moved here from Australia in November. Yeah. Two countries with two totally different responses to COVID, by the way. And you know, it was just a really interesting time. It was a tough trip to travel. I had to, of course, go through quarantine when I arrived. And then I had to start my new job virtually, meeting, I think, over 3000 people in the last ten months, mostly by Zoom.


So, it’s been a real challenge that way. And, you know, thankfully, technology has really improved in the last 16 months, so it’s allowed us, as a university, to connect to each other, to connect to with our students and for our students to connect to them, to themselves. And so, yeah, it’s a challenging time, but I’m really impressed, I must say, with UVic, and how it has responded. It’s been an experience that, you know, could be really daunting, but it’s been made easier by the fact that UVic has handled this pandemic, I think, really well. And I don’t say that because I’m working here as the president; I have experienced what’s going on at other universities, and I would just say we’re in a really good place right now. And we’re really getting excited about September. I’m really to be excited. I go for a daily stroll around campus, and I try to walk up to people, students, staff, and faculty, introduce myself, just have a chat, but it’s been really hard to find people. And so, I went– I’ve noticed in the last couple of weeks, more and more people returning to campus– it’s been great. It’s great to learn people’s stories and how they’re coping. You know, during this pandemic and it’s taken a different toll on different people in different ways. And I think, you know, what we’ve tried to do as universities to put support mechanisms in place to thoroughly help people deal with some of the stress, anxiety, uncertainty that exists around this pandemic.


Rebecca Gagan: Absolutely. And Kevin, was there anything that you found personally to be really helpful for you in terms of coping with all of the stresses? And I mean, I think that you know, starting a new job, even in the best of times, is there any challenging; it’s really stressful, but to start it in the moment of a global crisis, a global pandemic. I’ve been asking every guest, really, if there was something that they found to really help them get through.


Kevin Hall: Yeah, that’s a great question, Rebecca. I guess a couple of things for me, of course, when I accepted the job that was about four or five months before I actually started. And I would say the university, in general, did a fantastic job in putting together an information package over 3000 pages of information about the university, which I definitely read, which really was fantastic because it told me about, you know, what is important to you to UVic and what’s the culture of UVic, and what are the processes and critical issues.

So that was really good just for being prepared, but I think the other thing that has really stood out for me, both at the university and in the community, is the sense of community. It’s the friendly nature of everybody here, and it’s actually refreshing as I come back to Canada after eight years in Australia to be reminded of Canadians, and what they stand for and how friendly we generally are compared to other populations where I’ve lived and worked, but Victoria, in particular, and the university has been so welcoming, so accommodating. It’s just made this transition so easy for me, and so just big thanks to everybody on campus, our students, staff, and faculty that I’ve met and just talked to through the halls. There’s never been a sense of, who are you and what are you doing here? And you’re an outsider. And so that’s really been fantastic.


Rebecca Gagan: And I think that actually makes a really beautiful segue into my next question Kevin, which is really, UVic Bounce is about trying to build community, build connection through our sharing of our own stories and stories that involve challenge and difficulty, and one of the key goals of UVic Bounce is really to, as I say, deepen our connections with each other and build community through that kind of shared vulnerability in some ways. And just to change the conversation that exists on university campuses where we’ve focused a lot, understandably, on success and excellence. But that can often elide the path or the journeys that we take to be successful or to in the pursuit of excellence, where we do have challenges as students, as faculty; there are struggles, and we tend not to talk about those for all kinds of reasons, but UVic Bounce really wants to use this forum, use this podcast, as a way of sharing those stories so that we are all on the same page in terms of understanding that our journeys through the university are complicated. 


They are, you know, filled with all different kinds of challenges and obstacles, some of which are systemic and that, we, of course, need to be really focusing our attention on to reduce those barriers for students, so they don’t have to struggle in certain ways. And so, I just want to say, Kevin, it’s so meaningful that you are here and willing to share your story with us of your own experience as a student because I think students don’t often get to hear those stories, right? That you too have been a student at a university before. You, being a president who’s really running universities, I would just be so grateful if you could share some of your story with us today.


Kevin Hall: Yeah, Rebecca, absolutely happy to. And I think I would just really start off by saying, I’ve been around universities a long time now, as a student, obviously studying for three degrees. And as a professor and, more recently, working in leadership of the university, it’s still a professor, of course. And I think that’s an important thing to remember. And, I think whether it’s in my academic life or outside of life, one of the important things for me has always been to recognize that collaborating working together in teams is really important. And when you do that, you really have to have respect for what everybody else brings to the table. And that doesn’t mean you always get your way, but it just means you need to be a good listener. And I think I’ve embraced that since I was a student. I went to Queen’s University, and I was the first in my family to go to university.


In fact, my parents, both of them, my mom, had her grade six education, and my dad had his grade five education. My mom, for various reasons, left school to help her mother with a business. Her father had died during the war in the UK. When the kids were growing up were young, my parents decided to move to Canada because we were in the wrong class in the UK to go to university, and they thought education was really important. And if I fast forward to now, there were four children in their family; three brothers and sisters for me, all four of us have university degrees. Two are professors, one’s a high school teacher, and one’s a public school teacher, so education has been a really important thing for me. But I would say as the first in my family going to school, there were certainly challenges.


When I was a student at Queens, for example, my first week there, I went into engineering because I was good at math and science, and the high school teacher in high school, my guidance counsellor, had said, “Hey, you should do engineering because you’re good in science and math.” I really had no idea what it was, but I took it. I show up to my lecture and the first week, and somebody comes in and says, “I’m Dr. Sanso.” My first response is, “I’m studying engineering, not medicine. I’m in the wrong building.” I had no concept of what a university was, what a professor was, how things would be different from high school because I had no reference point. My parents couldn’t experience that with me. You know, we were also from, I guess, the wrong side of the tracks in terms of financial wealth. And so, my family wasn’t able to, you know, pay for me to go to university, and finance was always an issue. And so, I struggled through university with having multiple jobs, why I’m studying engineering both during the term and in the summer. And at the time, I didn’t see that as a burden, but it obviously must’ve cut into my studying time, so that was always a challenge was making sure I had enough money to go back to school the next year. And that he was the story through my bachelor’s and master’s degree. I think the other piece was not having, you know, somebody at home to help you with your first-year assignments; to have a look at it and read them over, meant that I had to find alternative pathways, which is why I say, finding opportunities to collaborate and build teams around you are really important. So, I quickly glommed onto some of what I thought were the smart kids in the class and started trying to study with them and sharing ideas, but I do remember, distinctly in my first term at Queens, I studying engineering you know, midterms came around, and I failed four midterms, and I’ve never failed anything in my life. I sailed through high school, not really doing much and doing really well in terms of marks, but this was a different game. And I had to, I guess, really learn what university was about and that, again, I’m relying on friends and peers and colleagues and really had to learn how to time manage.


That was a skill I didn’t have. And how do I deal with these six courses and in those days, six exams in three days, and how do I manage all the studying and things like that. You know, it was a real learning experience for me. And I would say to students, in fact, university is about learning around the edges of the courses; It’s not just a bunch of courses. The courses are great, and they teach you things, and they teach you how to learn essentially, but it is the extra things that you have to do to make sure you’re successful, and everybody’s different. And you have to find that magic formula that works for you; of how hard you have to work, how hard you have to study, how much fun you can go and have, how you can slack off, whatever it is, you’ve got to find that balance for yourself, but doing that you know, in groups, is fantastic. And the other piece for me that was important was the extracurricular activities; that to recognize that it’s important to get engaged in other things at universities, whether it’s clubs or sporting teams, or volunteering in the community, which I did all three because I was really keen on building you know, building my brain, and building my– trying to find out what it is I liked in life.


And so, I just think that getting involved in the university, beyond your classroom, it’s just so critical. And that’s been one of the challenges with the pandemic, is we’ve had to suspend a lot of the things we do normally as a university, unfortunately; and although we can do some of those things virtually, there’s nothing like sitting around with friends and colleagues, and teammates and club members, and just having some great discussions about all kinds of things in life. That’s the important piece of the university. So it was; I wouldn’t say it was a struggle for me. I’m not going to complain, but it was a very new thing for me. And I think a lot of students will experience that when they come to the university. The transition from high school to university can be quite difficult. And I think that’s really, you know, that’s really critical.


Rebecca Gagan: Kevin, I think actually there’s a lot to unpack here in terms of what you’ve shared in your own experience about not just that transition, but about how university and making that transition to the university is about so much more than just the classes that you pick and the content that you’re learning from those courses. And we– our most recent episode on Waving, Not Drowning is with Andrew Murray, who talks about “How to University,” and he shares a similar experience of coming to university and having really no idea how to do university. And I think what you’ve added here by sharing your stories it’s not just that you’re moving into post-secondary and there’s new courses. It’s that if you are like you were the first in your family to go there, you don’t have that kind of context. You need to find, as you’ve suggested, other forms of support, like who are your people in a certain sense, right?


Like who we’re going to be those that will support you, if for example, you aren’t– not that your parents aren’t supportive in all kinds of ways, but if there isn’t– my parents, for example, were both, are both academics. And so, when I went to university, I had been around professors my whole life, and my dad was a university administrator. I understood universities. I knew how it worked. I completely took it for granted that I had that knowledge, that I knew how to talk to professors, like how do I ask for help? How do I negotiate all of the sort of, bureaucracy of the university as well? But all of those things that you don’t know how to do. And so I’ve talked to several guests who have shared a similar experience to you, and I’ve realized myself just how much there is for students to start to figure out when they land here, and that if they don’t have that, there’s even– there’s another layer then of work to do to access that support that you need that is here, but even sometimes knowing how to access the help can be a challenge, right?


Kevin Hall: Yeah, I think that’s really important, Rebecca. And I lookout. I would say that my kids, when they went to university, of course, the first thing they would do is say, dad, I got a paper. Can you review this for me? But I’m not going to say they didn’t struggle either, cause I can’t speak for them, but I do think what you’ve just said is really important. And I think, sometimes through pride, I didn’t use the resources available to me when I was an undergraduate. It was like “oh no, no, I better not do that. I don’t need that help.” So, I would say my perspective now it’s totally changed, and students need to use all the resources available to make sure, you know, you reach out for those reasons. It could be around mental health issues, and we put in a tremendous amount of mental health counselling just to help people get through the pandemic. In fact, it might not be anything to do with academia. It might be to do with depression because this whole world’s locked down right now. You know, sporting clubs, other clubs, those resources in those clubs and I think it’s, you know, mentoring, tutorials all the, everything. We provide so much student support. And is it under-utilized? Perhaps it is because I think a lot of students won’t access it just through pride. I don’t want to go on and do that. I, again, highly recommend all students use what’s available.


Rebecca Gagan: I couldn’t agree more about students feeling a sense of shame about accessing asking for help, right? That I think many students feel like they should somehow just know how to write a paper. I see that in my own classes where students come to my office hours for help and are almost apologetic, right? Like why– and I say no, of course not. Like we don’t expect that, you know how to do this in advance of coming here. And the same thing just asking for, whether that’s mental health support through counselling, that there is just a feeling that students can have of just shame, and that they need the help. And I think really emphasizing that we’ve all needed to ask for help and that it is there to be used. I think that I, certainly as a student, did not take advantage of the resources. I felt, oh, maybe I’m not struggling enough. Or that’s other students, that’s not me, but it was me, but I just didn’t feel that I had the right almost to go and ask for help.


Kevin Hall: Yeah. Yeah. And you know, one of the things that I think is fantastic about UVic that I’ve learned in my first ten months here is a level of support we put in place for our students and our staff and faculty, in fact, because we all need support at some point in time. And so, I think the university should be really proud of the fact that it does have multiple layers of different types of help. And yeah, we’re absolutely happy to have those services to the fullest.


Rebecca Gagan: Yes. Like that, they need to be over-utilized, and that’s what we’re hoping for. So, the other thing I wanted to just pick up on, Kevin, is your comment or your sharing the part of your story when you talk about needing to work and financial stress. And I think that many of our students can relate to this, that they certainly I think many of my students are at least working a part-time job all the way through their degree and are very concerned about how they will pay for their courses. Like I imagine that that was very stressful for you as a student, as you said like it was an additional thing that you had to think about– that it was always in the back of your mind that you had to be paying for the next round of tuition. How did you cope with that?


Kevin Hall: Yeah, I guess I’ve said two things; first of all, is the recognition and realization that I had to work. I mean, I had no choice because I have to pay the bills as I was finding a job that fit in well with my schedule. And that also meant, again, I’m getting really good at time management, figuring out when it was, I could actually work and when I needed to study, and everybody will be different around that. The other piece that I didn’t use, and again, this goes back to using the resources available, were things like the bursaries available.

And we, again, at this university, we have a fantastic array of different bursaries to provide financials to those in need. Do we have enough? Absolutely no, but don’t be afraid to tap into those resources. You know, if things are really looking poorly. The other piece for me was, again, what I mentioned earlier, is that the recognition early on in my life that we’re working together in teams and collaborating was really important and that helped take some of the burden off of studying, recognizing you could work in groups with your colleagues, and you didn’t have to do it all alone. You didn’t have to solve all the problems yourself. Engineering’s very much hands-on problem-solving, and you could actually work together, and you would learn the material in the same way as if you did it yourself, but you could cut down on time.


And so, the importance of building some networks of peers that you lik and you want to study with can help you get through that lack of time you might have because you’re out working some of the time. And, I think, you know, Victoria itself is an expensive city for all of us, as is Toronto and Vancouver, and Montreal and other cities. So, we’re not alone in terms of that compared to other universities across the country. But it is a huge, huge burden. You know, apply for all the bursaries you can. You can apply for scholarships and see what happens. You can’t be awarded them if you don’t apply for them. And so again, we, we tend to not think about, “oh, I can’t be bothered to fill out that application or I won’t get it” or whatever it is, but absolutely give it a go, and see what support can be made available through the university. A lot of our funding for students comes through our alumni, who put all kinds of donations into programs that support students, and I think that’s important to recognize the value and benefit of our fantastic alumni and what they contribute to a student’s experience as well.


And one of the things I did at Queens was I actually wanted to make sure I got connected to alumni, and I would encourage students to do that somehow because I was looking at the job market, thinking, “okay, I’m going to graduate in engineering. I want to get a job. Wow. I should meet some of these people that run these big companies. Maybe I’m going to get a job.” So, there could have multiple benefits for getting engaged in alumni, and that’s certainly one of the things I hope to try to build on it to UVic in my five years as president is the connectivity or engagement with our alumni because our alumni are really important to us. They’re all people who have come through our programs and systems. They are a wealth of experience about what UVic is and what it has to offer. And they’re also a support, so, an important piece of the university we often don’t think about.


Rebecca Gagan: Well, some UVic alumni, very generously, made UVic Bounce videos to share some of their experience as students as a way of supporting our current students and building community. And UVic alumni has been a big supporter of UVic Bounce, so I’m very grateful to them. Just picking up on a point that you made, Kevin, really about not feeling that you have to do it alone. So throughout our conversation today, one of the running threads has been that you very quickly realized that you would need support, whether that– in order to navigate your university experience and in order to be juggling all that you were, so working, engaging in extracurricular volunteer work, all of those things that you wanted to do, were at once pathways to building community, but also these routes where you were finding support for yourself going through.


And it seems to me that you recognized pretty early on that you that not only did you not have to be able to alone, but that you couldn’t, that you needed, that you would need the support of others to really be able to thrive at university, that that was essential to your path. And it seems like that’s now such a part of who you are. So, when you talk about figuring out what you liked and who you are, it sounds to me like building community, being part of communities, working together early on became something that you not only really enjoyed, but that you understood as necessary, not just for yourself, but for everyone in terms of thriving in a kind of university community.


Kevin Hall: That was really important to me is building that network and a support network, if you like. Probably not recognizing at the time, as an 18, 19 year old, it was actually support, but recognizing how it helped me succeed at university, how it helped me, I guess, cope with the workload, build my sense of, I guess, knowledge and the course in particular, and so forming study groups, meeting people through clubs were just critical to my success at university. And I would just, again, encourage students, you know, university is about learning in the classroom, but it’s much more than that. It’s about building friendships, friendships that will last a lifetime. It’s about collaborating, and collaborating is just working beside each other, listening to differences in opinion. And as I mentioned earlier, it’s about really respecting what others bring to the table because you soon realize you may have been the big fish in high school, but you’re all of a sudden into a much bigger tank now.


And so there’s a lot of things your friends will bring, your colleagues will bring, your fellow students and peers will bring to your life that enriches not just your ability to study, but how you look at life in general and how you look at all these issues that we’re facing today in this world, whether it’s climate change, it’s truth, respect and reconciliation; that’s critical to this country. It’s about inclusivity and anti-racism. You won’t get an understanding of all those issues if you put yourself in a cocoon; you will get an understanding of the actually embrace the differences that people bring to the table and surround yourself with people that aren’t like-minded, necessarily, people that bring that diversity. I think the other thing that’s fantastic to remember when you’re at university is the world is a very multidisciplinary world, and you may be studying engineering, for example, or philosophy, for example, but the grand challenges that we’re faced with today as a society can only be solved by bringing those rich, diverse teams of people with different backgrounds who can think differently. And when you integrate everything together, you come up with those solutions to our world’s biggest challenges. And you know, put yourself out of your comfort. Get involved in things that you actually don’t know anything about or get involved with people that know things that you don’t know, and really build that true sense of multidisciplinarity that will solve these big challenges we’re facing in life.


And I guess the last thing would be to use the resources that are available to you. We’ve talked about that earlier, but you know, the resources are in place for a particular reason. They’re there to really help build student success in the classroom, in your personal life, in the way you look and interact with the community. And so make sure you use the resources and never forget learning is not all in the classroom. And that’s why it’s important to connect and collaborate because that’s where you learn as much as you do sitting down, listening to a lecture or doing a laboratory.


Rebecca Gagan: In what you’ve just shared, gotten to the heart of what the UVic Bounce as an initiative is all about, but also I think what so many of us want to see for our students at the university, which is that real sense of connection and that, you’ve talked about the importance of having a kind of community-minded journey and having community and connection at the forefront versus a kind of individualism, not only where you feel, you must do it alone, but you pursue that path at– while sacrificing those connections. And I think what you’ve explained so powerfully is that it’s not only the case that kind of aggressive individualism won’t help to solve the world’s problems, but you also will be on a path in which you won’t be able to access the kind of connection, that meaningful connection that helps you to grow as a human. That is so essential to, as I think we’ve learned through this pandemic, that connection is so central to us, as humans, and that we need that. 


And I think that you know, you’ve just really brought home the power of being in relation with others in a way that is, of course, you know, respectful and genuine, but that it enriches us all, enriches our communities, both local, and global. And to be open to that, I think, opening to connection is so essential when you start here at university, and to surprise, and to being truly hospitable to what might come right as a student, and it so exceeds what you are going to experience in the classroom. And I just want to thank you so much, Kevin, for sharing your story, and you know, your own experience here and, just also, your commitment to really building community and connection here at UVic.


Kevin Hall: Thanks, Rebecca. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation and to students that are listening. Make sure if you see me strolling across campus, you come up and say hello. And I’m really keen on understanding how our students are enjoying their experience with the university and not just the classroom, the whole experience. We’re always open to suggestions as well. And some of them actually used a suggestion box. It’s called suggestionbox/uvic.ca, and believe it or not, we respond in my office to every single suggestion that’s made through that suggestion box. And we have had some fantastic suggestions from our students, staff, and faculty. And so, if you’ve got some ideas on how we can make this a better university and how we can enrich your experience as a student, just let us know as well. Yeah, I’ve enjoyed the conversation.


Rebecca Gagan: Thank you, Kevin. And it’s clear to me that the work you started as an undergrad in recognizing the importance of listening is still continuing just as strongly as ever. So thank you very much for being here. Bye for now.


You can keep listening to episodes of Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify, or wherever you stream your podcasts. We’d love it. If you would give us a like and a follow on Instagram @uvicbounce. Tune in next week for another great conversation.


Until then.


Be well.