Episode 6: Stick-to-itiveness With Dr. Susan Breau

Dr. Susan Breau is a Professor and Dean of Law here at UVic, and she has a distinguished record of achievement as a researcher, teacher, and administrator. Her scholarship engages with multiple forms of law and legal orders, particularly in the law of armed conflict, international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and international disaster law.

If you love it, you will do well. It's not about marks. It's about having that passion for what it is in your soul you were meant to do."

Dr. Susan Breau

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, I talk with Dr. Susan Breau, professor and Dean of law here at UVic. Before coming to the University of Victoria, Dr. Breau was head of the school of law at the University of Redding. Dr. Breau had received a BA, an LLC, and an MA from Queens University. She also earned a Master of Law and a PhD from the London School of economics and political science. Dr. Breau’s scholarship engages with multiple forms of law and legal orders, particularly in the law of armed conflict, international humanitarian law, and international human rights law, and disaster law. In our wide-ranging and fascinating conversation, Susan shares, with me, her experience as a student with disabilities. She talks about how she walked away from a thriving law practice in Kingston, Ontario, in order to go to graduate school and pursue her passion for international law. And she talks a lot about the importance of trying to always work at engaging with your studies and indeed living your life on your own terms, and how this is something that you have to actively work at and fight for. I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Dr. Susan Breau, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.

Susan, thank you so much for being here today. I’m just delighted that you’ve been able to join me for this conversation. How have you been doing this past year?

Susan Breau: Well, it’s been an extraordinary year. Partly, it’s been very difficult being at home. I have an immune condition, so I’ve got to be very careful. And so, I have been, and I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t become ill. And it– and some ways that drives you a little bit, stir crazy. You’re at home all the time. You don’t see people very often. I have a few people in my bubble that I occasionally will have a socially distant lunch with for my 65th birthday. Jonathan Bengston, the university librarian and Kathy Kroll and Tricia mark called me to a park. I was at home, but I wasn’t even dressed up properly, and they said, please come out to the park, which is in front of my house. I lived in Cordova Bay, and I thought, what the heck is going on? What do they want me to go to a park? And there was a cake and champagne for my birthday.

Rebecca Gagan: Oh, so nice.

Susan Breau: So that was really, really, really sweet. And so, you know, there’s been extraordinary events like that. The other thing that has been extraordinary is that I’m an international lawyer, and actually, COVID-19 is part of some of the work I’ve done in the past, which is international disaster law. And I got a call from my dear friend, Victor Ramrad, who runs the Center for Asia Pacific initiatives. And he asked me if I’d like to contribute a chapter on the international community’s response to COVID-19. Well, that kickstarted my research career again, and it has been an amazing year for my research.

I’ve helped form an international disaster law network that runs out of New Zealand, and we meet regularly. I’ve gotten involved in an initiative to deal with the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar last night. I was on a webinar; I think you call it a webinar– a meeting to discuss the Myanmar coup with my fellow speakers from Singapore and Thailand. And the fact is that we’re having this international conversation about the things that are so close to my heart—human rights, dignity, international disasters, how we respond to things like COVID-19. And so, my brain has just been busing. And yesterday, I got an email from the editor of a book I’d done asking me to do a second edition, and it’s the research handbook on international disaster law.

And so, it’s like, whoop, I can see my career going many years beyond my Deanship and really working on the things that I love. And so that’s made me very happy, and so it’s been extraordinary in that way. The other thing that’s been extraordinary is leading the law school. We seem to have really pulled together and done an amazing job during Covid, but I’ve been very proud in my job as well.

Rebecca Gagan: And Susan, just listening to you– I know you used to do a lot of international travel obviously for your research and for your work. And so, hearing you share this news of how coming together as really a kind of global community hasn’t required that you are travelling, that you have come together. You have this research has been out of necessity, really energized, and you’re still able to do that work. As you say, over Zoom, and I think this is one of the things that maybe we tend to lose sight of, you know, in the midst of all of the challenges and all of the loss, we lose sight of the way in which we’ve maybe come together in new ways as a global community in our local communities, as you say, with the law school, the way that community has rallied and come together. And I think those are the moments too. And I like how you described them as extraordinary. That it’s something coming out of the experience of this difficulty that is activating something new and something that, as you say, is so vital and important for this particular historical moment.

Susan Breau: Part of this is my belief, and it’s always been my belief that we are a global community. When I came back to Canada two years ago, I was a bit shocked by sort of almost an isolationist view. You know, we’re in Victoria, we’re in BC, and we don’t think much beyond that. Well, now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, everybody’s becoming a global citizen. If you ask students, they’re online with people from across the world. There are conversations taking place that didn’t take place before. People are reaching out. And it’s an amazing experience to do that. I think our students are ahead of us on this. I think they know they’re global citizens. The global pandemic has just shown them, but they’re all sort of they’re engaged in issues, like the George Floyd matter that happened this summer. Oh, my goodness. My students are so engaged in issues of racial discrimination and issues of equality, and how unequal the pandemic has been and how it’s had an effect on the poor and other racial groups in a disproportionate effect. And so, I also think that our students are getting on board with this idea as well. And that has been my mission since I started in academia. I lived in the United Kingdom for 16 years, in Australia for three years; when I was a child, I lived in Germany.

I always had the sense of myself as a global citizen, not just a Canadian– very proud to be Canadian, but also part of a global conversation. And I see that for the rest of my life. I end up, you know, I keep my contacts in Australia, in the United Kingdom, in Europe, all over the place to be able to– and in Asia– developing a huge about a context in Asia –to be able to keep up that conversation. And yes, some of it will be in Zoom– I hope to return to travel, but you know, we can have lots of meetings without travelling.

Rebecca Gagan: Absolutely. And I think we get a little bit understandably down on Zoom and the amount of time that we spend there. But I think what you’ve really reminded us of today, and that’s really striking for me, is the way in which Zoom has made possible or made it more possible to be able to work on, as you say, these crises around the world and to be able to effect change, that this technology has made that possible. And you’re right. I certainly feel my students are way ahead of m, in terms of not just their technological savvy, but as you say, their understanding of themselves as global citizens who have the power and the capacity to effect change.

So, well, thank you, Susan, for starting us off really on such an inspiring and energizing note. You know that I’ve wanted to talk to you today because I wanted to get your– sort of your story a bit about what you experienced as a student in terms of perhaps some challenges and difficulty. You know that UVic Bounce and this podcast is very much about trying to de-stigmatize the discussions around challenge and difficulty that students might have at university. And so, I’m wondering if you might be willing to share some of your own experience as a student.

Susan Breau: Well, I’m happy to do so. And I should say that, in my welcome talk this year to the first years, I disclosed that I had had various difficulties during my university career, leading me to be the last person accepted into law school at Queens University. In my year, I got in like three days before the law school started because my marks weren’t as hot. I’m a disabled person, but I want to say I’m a very proud disabled person. I’ve had various medical challenges throughout my life. I got some kind of arthritic condition even when I was in my undergrad, although it remained undiagnosed till a few years ago, and it’s an immune condition, but it meant physically I never could keep up. I mean, I just couldn’t. One of the reasons that assumes a gift because I can’t walk very far and I never have been able to, and I didn’t know why, but it turned out in connecting with my aunts, it’s in the family, and it’s a premature, almost like a rheumatoid arthritis. It’s a branch of that that we all got.My aunts had it, I’ve had it, but it meant I couldn’t keep up as much. The other thing I had was a learning disability. I have a disability. Thank God that I got diagnosed in my undergrad degree to the point where the counsellor at Queens said, don’t even take economics. You’re so bad at math. Don’t take economics.

I’ve always thanked my grade 12 teacher for giving me a 60, which meant I didn’t have to write the math final exam because, frankly, I wouldn’t have gotten through high school. I had a disability in looking at formulas and diagrams that I still do to the day. I can do numbers. I can remember numbers in my head, but I’ve always had that learning disability, but, you know, so did I, Einstein, so have lots of people.

And the truth was when I was diagnosed with that disability. I was also told I had a superior ability in reading and remembering words. And so, I was able to balance that, but I was never an A student. I have had luck. I’ve had some papers I’ve written that have gotten an A, but I would always say to my students, I’m a solid B student and proud of it. For me, it was like it wasn’t about achieving the top marks. It was about the joy of learning, and I always had that from the time I was a child. I devoured books. My father had a degree in history. I was fascinated by history. He was a UN peacekeeper. I was fascinated by the law of war from the time I was a child, and it took a long time to get to do it.

But that’s what I was interested in. But I had lots of barriers because, you know, I didn’t do as well in school. I had to have advocates. My mother was a strong advocate. They didn’t want to pass me in public school because one of my parts of my disability was the difficulty learning to write, but all of that, I have to say, came together in my undergrad. I was very lucky. The Queens had what is the equivalent of CAL here, and when I get my students, I urge them to go to CAL. I say, you’re not disabled. You are able, and you just need to get that help to get through your degree because look at it. It can be done. You know, here’s someone who had a very difficult time in learning, and yet it can be done, and you could end up with five university degrees and several books, you know. And I often say, it’s no– in fact when I was at LSE, doing– I did a second set of degrees. I was admitted into the PhD, and I didn’t get an A, but I had a professor– there was always someone who thought that I was bright enough and who supported me in my whole career. And he let me in, and frankly, I wouldn’t have gotten into my PhD without his help. And he also led a student who had gotten straight A’s. She dropped out after three months because the point was she didn’t have the stick-to-itiveness that I had. When I had a chance, I wouldn’t let go. I would just keep working, and it was hard, and you know, it wasn’t easy, but I just kept– for example, I didn’t write my first book till I was 50.

This takes a long time. And I had a wonderful African professor at LSE, and I went in all embarrassed that it taken me until my forties to go and do a graduate degree. And he said, Susan, it takes what it takes. It did take me a lifetime to get to my dream, but I got there, and I think it’s perseverance. It’s an ability to go deep within yourself and say, no matter what, I can do this. My other disability was– I came from a– and I don’t want to go into a lot of details– so very bad family background. And that also caused great anxiety and depression in certain periods of my life. And that still comes back.

I mean, there are things you live with as well, but you know that one of the things I’ve– I always say to my students at UVic: you go, and you get the help you need. You demand it if you have to, but you know, you go, and you get the help you need. And I think it makes me– I knew that I wanted to teach students because I was the student who struggled. I didn’t want to teach students because I was the student who excelled. I wanted to be that role model to say anyone, anyone can do it if they just– well, the expression I use is: you just don’t take no for an answer.

Rebecca Gagan: Susan. I just… I mean… There’s so much that you’ve shared here that I know is, in my heart is, so helpful for students to hear. And I mean, the very first thing is that, as you say, you ask for help knowing that going to CAL– that that is your right to have those supports and that those support that, you know, that you are able and that the supports level the field in the sense that, you know, you’re getting what you need to be able to thrive. And my son has some learning disabilities, and we’ve struggled at his school to get those supports. And he now has them. And this is the first year that he’s been, you know, meeting those expectations. And, um, I say to myself, every day, these supports are– he is fully able, but he needs some help. And now that he has the help, he is just thriving, and you know, hearing you talk, I feel, just also very inspired for my own child, in the sense that he will be able to achieve his dream. And yes, there’s a lot of, as you say, fighting and not taking no, but there’s also, as you say, Susan, this emphasis on, as you say, you weren’t focused on the grades in the sense that you were focused on the learning. And I love how you say it was a proud B student, because I know when you know, very well from talking to students, that there is a way in which students get really, they get stuck on the grades. And I understand that there’s a pragmatic piece there that for scholarships and things like that, but the danger– I think, in getting so fixated is that you know, or getting too attached to what the grades say about you as a person, and also investing in that letter grade or that number grade– is that you lose sight of why you’re there. And what your– do you love learning? And actually, I filled out a reference form for a student recently for UBC’s medical school. And one of the questions was something like, “is this student interested in grades or interested in learning?” And I thought, oh, kudos to this medical school for asking that question, but, yeah, absolutely.

So, I just– I find what you’re suggesting here, what you’re sharing, is so important for students to hear, especially students who are studying and living with disabilities.

Susan Breau: The other thing is to avoid the should-haves. One of the things I did early in my life is I tend to follow other people’s advice about what I should study. And I had a passion. It was in my soul, and it started when I was in Anne Frank’s house in the Netherlands. My interest was the prevention of responding to genocide. And yet people said, oh, you’re a girl. You’re not going to get to do that kind of work. You know, in my generation, it was of the female aspect. You’re not going to get to do that kind of work. Why don’t you become a family lawyer in Kingston? So, for 18 years, I was a family lawyer in Kingston. And what I say to my students is, dig down deep in that gut. What is it that you love? What do you want to read? What do you want to think about? What do you dream about?

And that is also important for all of us to find our path and not let other people tell us what our path is. And that’s that idea of marks, too. Because you know, a lot of students are under pressure where you’ve got to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer or a– you know, we push people in a direction that maybe isn’t good for their souls; where if there’s other people, other students– I’ve met students within the first five minutes, I’ll say, oh, you’ll be a great lawyer. I know, you know, they just lose it. But it’s sad looking at– oh, I don’t know that we do a good enough job in secondary school about that. I think my observation is there’s too much pressure on students to become professional, to, you know, to get those jobs instead of what is it that makes you happy. I gave up a huge income to go back to LSE and live in a grotty little resident’s room. And it was the best decision I ever made in my life. That year, I did my first degree– my masters at LSE was the happiest year of my life. Absolutely bar none. And it was just taking that chance to say, what is I that– and for me, it was like, I could see the approach in to go. I was sitting middle-aged, and I thought, if I don’t get to do this now, I’m never going to do it. And I’ve got to take that chance. And my goodness, you know, my whole life has changed– the joy of doing what you love, that’s everything.

Rebecca Gagan: And I’m so interested, too, Susan, in how you said that you didn’t publish your first book till 50, and you did not sort of give in to those pressures to do your life on somebody else’s timeline. And I think that timelines for– and it’s certainly something I’ve experienced in my own life, too, this real pressure to have. It’s a kind of combination of the should’ve and that you’re comparing yourself to others and feeling as if you’re behind somehow in your life. Uh, and that things have to be done on a schedule. And as you say, when you pause and ask, well, who’s running that timeline, right? Whose schedule is it? And so I find it very empowering that you say that no, you, you just– you, out of a passion for what you were doing, and of necessity, in some ways, you stuck to your own schedule. How were you able to mitigate all of those pressures that you were kind of dealing with all the time as a student?

Susan Breau: I think it’s difficult when you’re younger, and I don’t blame people. And I often tell my students, you know, it may take you a while to find your path. And don’t forget, with women, we’re often under the pressure to build families, to do other personal things with our lives and that– and for me in my generation, that was a huge pressure. You know, for years, I felt like a failure that I hadn’t made a good marriage. That was one of the big messages in my life was– you know, if you don’t do that, you don’t succeed. And then I remember an expression from Katherine Hepburn, another happily single person for her whole life, and didn’t have children. She said, “I paddled my own canoe.” And that I remember reading about Katherine Hepburn,and I was thinking, you know what, I’ve got a paddle, my own canoe, but it took a long time.

I’ve got to say it wasn’t– I went to LSE at 44, but I think my late thirties, early forties things really began to be very clear to me, then I quickly saved enough money to go to school, but you know, it became very clear that I wasn’t following my own path. And that I needed to do that. I needed to have the courage to do that. And it takes courage. The first six months I was in London, I thought I’d lost my ever-loving mind. I’m sitting there with kids in their twenties and thirties– and you know, I’m trying to study this stuff thinking, what did I do to myself? I was a leading lawyer in Kingston. I was making a lot of money. Why did I quit my job? But then, you know, the truth is I’m probably more successful today than I would’ve ever been if I had stayed in Kingston. And you know, when you’re doing what you love, it tends to work out, but you don’t know that. I mean, that’s the big message I would say to students: regardless of what field you’re in. If you love it, you will do well. And it’s not about marks. It’s about having that passion for what it is in your soul you were meant to do. And if you follow that path, I’ve very rarely seen someone disappointed in that. One other story– one of my students at LSE was determined to work for the international criminal court. Now getting a job at the international criminal court it’s like getting an Oscar. 

Rebecca Gagan: Okay. I did not know that.

Susan Breau: But he didn’t take no for an answer. He went to Rwanda, he went to Sierra Leon, he travelled, he got his certificate, and he got a job as a lawyer at the international criminal court. Three years ago, he died. Young, prematurely of an illness. And the thing that gave me joy was the fact– and it even said that in his obituary– that he had gotten to do what he was meant to. And that’s important. You know, he managed to with perseverance and again, he wasn’t the A-plus student either, but he was determined. He had a mission he wanted to fulfill in his life, and he got to do it. And that’s, you know– I’m devastated to lose a student, and there’ve been a few that have passed away in my career. I keep in touch with all my students, by the way. I have a huge Facebook, and I like to see their babies, and their marriages, and everything that’s going on, but it’s the message. He was successful. And I had another student who actually is here, Victoria. She wouldn’t mind if I told you this. She came in to see me, and she said, I’m going to Oxford. And myself and my supervisor, we met, we said, “oh my God, she wants to go to Oxford to do her law degree. It’s like really hard to get in,” but we both sat down, and we did wonderful letters for her and my God, she got into Oxford, and she got her law degree at Oxford, and you know, happy to see that, but that was, you know– she knew in her soul what she wanted to do and we have to support that.

Rebecca Gagan: And as you say, Susan, it’s this stick-to-itiveness, but also determination. But it’s more than that because what you’re getting at is that it’s following that passion and letting that guide you and not giving up on it. And as I’m listening to you talk, I think about how, okay, so, you know, we were having this conversation. We are not young students anymore, and we’ve had the benefit of time to be able to reflect in this way and to offer this guidance, but I want to say this, that, you know, if somebody had sat down with me when I was in my undergrad and said to me what you had have just shared, I really feel it would have made a difference to me. I mean, maybe it would have been hard for me to take it in, but I think what happens is that otherwise you can go down all kinds of different paths, and it doesn’t mean that those paths are the wrong paths, but sometimes you can get away from, as you’re saying, you know, you can get away from your heart, from your purpose. And you know, I hear a lot in what you’re saying– I hear this kind of– if you’ve got one life, it’s your life, and paddle your own canoe and do what makes you happy. And when you say, Susan, now. That you’re more successful than perhaps when you were in Kingston, but you’ve also made it clear you’re happier.

Susan Breau: Much. I mean, I’m not saying it’s always easy. One advice I would give to students: find that person that you can talk to; find that mentor. And it may be another more senior student; it may be a counsellor, it may be a professor who you particularly bond with, but find that person. I’ve been extremely fortunate that in every stage from high school, when a high school teacher literally drove me down to Queens, since I was trying to decide which university to go do, I’ll never forget her, Margaret. Never, I’ll never forget her. From professors in my undergrad, like George Perlin, who took me to a conservative convention and gave me all sorts of research work, to Chris Greenwood, my supervisor at LSE. I’ve always found those people that I can talk to. Because when you have challenges, when you’re disabled when the world might be telling you, “You’re not going to be the successful person, you’re not going to get there.” You need those people who, too, will say, “yeah, you know, you are inspiring. You do have these ideas that somebody should listen to,” and that’s important to feed your soul, and you need that soul fed because a lot of people are going to say, no. A lot of people, including your teachers, including your peers. They’ll say, “oh, this is impossible.” But finding that person in your education, and I have to say it, UVic, I think there are a lot of inspirational people walking around the place. And, you know– and who would– I often say to my students, you know, I’m the lonely Dean; come and talk to me. You know, I want to talk to you, and some of them do, and we have these really important conversations about my experiences as a lawyer or my experiences in academic.

And I love doing that. And I think a real true academic, someone who belongs here– by the way, you don’t belong here if you don’t want to do that– I mean, if you don’t want to mentor students, if you don’t want to talk to students, you shouldn’t be doing the job. And, but most of us are committed to that. We care about our students. We want them to succeed in life, but also mentoring is an obligation that takes a long time. I still mentor students from 20 years ago. You know, that student whose story I told you about who lives in Victoria, that happened in 2000, okay? I still am part of her life. And as you get older and realize that these times are fleeting, I know it happens to be every time I go back to London. I know I’ve got a network of people who are going to care about what happens to me when I get older. It’s also developing. It’s the benefit for academics, too. And often somebody will say, “oh, well, I’ve got my family.” Well, yes, your family’s really important, but your friends are also critical, and your students eventually become your dear friends.

Rebecca Gagan: That is so true. So, my mentor, David Clark at McMaster University, he taught me in undergrad. And so, we’re going back now to the early 90s, and he has abided with me on this journey and mentored me and supported me– believed in me when I did not believe in myself, and you know, really lifted me up, and encouraged me. We are different now, but I say to him all the time, “like it’s because of your support and guidance all the way through that, you know, that has made such a difference in my life.” And I think that what you’re saying, Susan is that if students can find even just one person who believes in them in this same way, that that will make the difference, and absolutely, Bounce is all about–, we know that faculty do so much more than just delivering the content of their courses.

Well, Susan, you’ve talked about the many inspirational faculty at UVic who are just so willing and eager to talk with students and to– and not just about, you know, the course content. And I just want to say that you are obviously–it’s so clearly one of those inspirational faculty, and I have so enjoyed our conversation today and learned from it. And I know that your words will be really just so landing in such a supportive way to our audience, so thank you so much for being here.

Susan Breau: Oh, thank you, Rebecca. I hope we get a chance to meet in person and share our stories. Thank you.

Rebecca Gagan: Okay. 


Susan Breau: Bye, bye

Rebecca Gagan: In the next episode of Waving, Not Drowning. I talk with Dr. Anthony Estey, an assistant teaching professor in the department of computer science. We talk about how challenging it is to maintain a healthy life balance, particularly in fields like engineering and computer science and especially during the pandemic. I really hope you’ll tune in for that conversation. You can stream Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Please follow us on Instagram @uvicbounce, where you can send us your comments, your thoughts, your ideas. We’d love to hear from you. 

Thanks so much for tuning in.

Until next time. 

Be well.