Some people anticipate the relaxed pace of retirement, while others start considering the next chapter almost immediately; for Conrad Grebel University College alumnus Linda Sauder Ruby, the latter was true. After an illustrious, three-decade long career as a high school teacher, and the last decade spent working with at-risk and marginalized students in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, she continues to serve in various capacities since “retiring.” From teaching English to a Syrian refugee family, to joining a think tank for an international education committee, to her current part-time role with MCC as the Low German Liaison, her passion for engaging with students and working as an educator remains strong. “Seeing that lightbulb come on continues to be a major driving force for me,” said Linda. 

linda ruby

Linda graduated from the University of Waterloo in 1986 with a BA in English and Drama, before attaining a Bachelor of Education degree from Western University in 1989. She spent the first 20 years of her career working as a Drama and English teacher in several secondary schools across Ontario where she led extra-curricular activities such as plays, musicals, and improv teams. “This work is all about building relationships and trust,” said Linda. “Engaging with student stories, their personal narratives. Listening, sharing, asking questions.” This was the fuel behind Linda’s work as an educator and became even more apparent as she shifted gears and began working as a Program Coordinator for Rural Education in Elmira. In this new and unique role, Linda gained the trust of students from the Low German-speaking Mennonite community and developed alternative learning programs to ensure their inclusion. These were the kinds of students who otherwise may not have attained a high school education.

“They’re known as the Low German community because they initially migrated from the lowlands of Germany; it is a name based on geography (literally the “lower” land), not status or hierarchy,” explained Linda. The history of the Low Germans in Canada dates to the 1800s when they first arrived in Manitoba and Saskatchewan on the government’s promise to grant them land and autonomy. However, not all the promises were kept, and the pressure for the Low German Mennonite children to attend public schools caused serious concerns for some members of the Low German Mennonite communities who feared losing their faith and values. In 1922, approximately 6000 Mennonites packed their bags, gathered their families, rounded up their livestock, and sat in train-boxcars to travel to their new home – the deserts of Northern Mexico.

“These are a group of hardworking people who highly value physical labour,” said Linda. “Many Low German Mennonites value working on the land, farming, and producing their own food. After 40 years, a large population of Low German Mennonites migrated back to Canada to pursue better opportunities and reconnect with relatives and family who had remained in Canada. Many settled in southwestern Ontario where they built their own churches and schools, and adjusted to life in Canada. Decades have passed and the population has grown significantly to over 50,000 in Ontario alone, and estimates of 80,000-100,000 in all of Canada.  To this day, the Low German-speaking Mennonites maintain a strong hold on their culture, faith, and values. Linda described the students she worked with as often wearing traditional clothing, sewn by the mothers, and raised in non-English speaking homes.  In this culture, the common practice was for children to leave school at the age of 15 and start working to help the family financially. The result was that many Low German youth did not finish high school or earn a high school diploma. The alternative high school program called ULearn, that Linda helped develop, aimed to address this gap.

“We developed an alternative high school program where these students could earn half of their credits through paid, co-op work placements,” said Linda, who helped develop ULearn for the Waterloo Region District School Board, based out of Elmira, Ontario. Not only did the program provide students with a diploma but it also continued to sharpen their numeracy and literacy skills while adhering to the values and respecting the traditions of the community.

“I played lots of charades trying to break the language barrier with some of the kids and parents,” said Linda. “Visiting their homes and seeing the strength of their faith, family and cultural values was inspiring.” While the goal of ULearn was to create an inclusive educational environment that respects rural community values, some of Linda’s favourite memories are outside of the classroom. “We rode the train together, went to the big city of Kitchener, and even took a trip to Canada’s Wonderland. It was the first time for most of the kids, and seeing their excitement was amazing.” Sometimes, the roles flipped, and Linda was learning from the Low Germans. “The women of this community are great sewers; I asked the moms of some students to help teach a sewing class to our students, and together they made over 200 kit bags for Mennonite Central Committee’s health and school kits.”

When Linda looks back on her career, she notes that the call to service, empathy, and compassion was instilled in her as a child through her family's commitment to faith. “But it was fueled and fostered even more by my time at Grebel,” she said. Through Chapel services, insights from professors, and late-night conversations in the dorm rooms, Linda said her world “opened up to the call to serve the vulnerable.” She was first introduced to the Low German community in the mid-80s when she volunteered at the MCC Ottawa Office as a research assistant. “I remember the director of the office asking if I could speak Low German because there were a lot of telephone inquiries from the Low German Mennonite population around citizenship issues at that time. I just shook my head,” she said. “Funny how life has a way of coming full circle, as this population that I had become aware of during my university years was the focus of the latter part of my career.”

Linda’s advice for current students stems from what she has learned over decades of experience– the importance of building trust. “Learn something new about your peers,” she said. “Share your ideas, differences, hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties. Talk, walk, and empathize with those who are different from you.”

“Make the most of that ready-made community at Grebel. Polarization happens when we do not listen to and engage with those different from us."

Linda's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more articles in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.

By Farhan Saeed