Sharing a passion for math problems

Donor-university partnership is a winning formula

Tom HigginsHow many times has a young person asked, “Why do I have to learn math? Does it really matter?”

Tom Higgins would say it matters a lot.

“Math is fundamental to solving some of the world’s biggest challenges – food sustainability, clean water, climate change and national security,” says Higgins, now retired after a career in trading and finance. “We need to do a much better job of getting kids excited about math. The skills they learn in critical and analytic thinking will be the foundation for their success, both in terms of solving big problems and in their careers.”

When he retired from his post as CEO of a financial institution, Higgins started thinking of ways he could encourage more kids to learn math and computer science. “I wanted to ignite their passion for these two fields,” he says. “It’s important to reach them in high school because that’s when they’re starting to think about their future educational and career paths.”

Joanne Shoveller portraitJoanne Shoveller, vice-president, advancement says: "The University of Waterloo thrives on creating opportunities out of challenges. Our donors partner with us because they believe that we have the people and the connections to find unique solutions to problems they care about.”

Higgins wanted to make an impact in Toronto, where he was born and raised. “I have so many fond memories of the city,” he says. “The population of the GTA is huge, so I knew my investment could make a big impact there.”

Sharing a passion for math problems

Math had played such a central role in Higgins’ own life, he wanted to share his passion with others.

As a young boy, he spent many summers at the cottage with his uncle, a professor at MIT. “He showed me that math is everywhere. And he made it fun, so I didn’t really need much encouragement.”

As a high school student, Higgins got involved in Waterloo’s math competitions and visited computer centres at the universities of Waterloo and Toronto. By the age of 16, he was working as a summer student in Toronto’s financial district, using math to solve problems that other people couldn’t. “Math is a leveller in that a person’s ability doesn’t depend on their age, gender, economic situation, cultural background or language,” he says.

Higgins received a BSc in math from Queen’s University and an MBA from the University of British Columbia.

Last year, he made the final payment on his original $525,000 pledge to the CEMC. “Ian and his team have done an amazing job. They’ve increased the number of visits to GTA schools, and established an annual math camp in Toronto. I was so pleased with the results that I wanted to keep the momentum going.”

As a result, Higgins made an additional $500,000 gift earlier this year from his charitable foundation, the TRH Foundation. “My hope is that we can continue to reach kids who demonstrate an aptitude for math and computers, and help them discover the kinds of things they can do if they choose to develop their talent. If kids have encouragement, there’s no telling how far they can go and what kind of impact they can make on the world.”

"Donors like Tom Higgins have a desire to help in a tangible and practical way — they have a vision, but they can’t get there on their own. By providing their generous financial support, they are leveraging the talent of our faculty, researchers, and students to elevate our impact on the world"

Joanne Shoveller vice-president, advancement