“Hold on. I want to go over and say hi.”
So began one of the most memorable moments I had working with the University of Waterloo’s sixth president.
We’d been walking through campus on a gorgeous September afternoon, talking about our visit to a first-year lecture. Before I knew it, President Feridun Hamdullahpur was bounding over to speak with two students playing an outdoor piano in the Peter Russell Rock Garden.
He didn’t know them. He simply wanted to chat.
Love for classical music and students
We were on our way to another meeting. Back-to-back appointments are very common for the busy president, but that didn’t stop him from going over to chat with two very surprised students. There in the picturesque rock garden, Feridun leaned against the piano, asked the students what they were playing (the president is an avid fan of classical music), how they were enjoying the term and if they had any questions or concerns.
I hung back, listening, and snapped a photo. What happened that day wasn’t a staged event. It wasn’t an organized meet-and-greet. It was a leader caring about his students.
I had the privilege of working closely with Feridun for nearly a year by that time and had already seen the passionate, caring and truly funny person he is. Every day I witnessed him work for our talented students, trying to find new ways to enable their success.
Every day I witnessed him work for our talented students, trying to find new ways to enable their success.
Developing student resiliency
Feridun wanted to build the resiliency of Waterloo and its students, especially in the face of an increasingly disruptive world. A University of Waterloo education is designed to push you to the next level, build new knowledge and skills to solve problems. Feridun never shied away from this. But he also knew our students needed to be supported and engaged.
He thrived on engaging with students and fellow researchers, answering questions in a room full of undergraduate students. I’ve seen him break off from a lab tour to ask a quiet graduate student about his research—so focused on the conversation that I had to be the bad guy and pull him away. He even continued to supervise PhD students throughout his time as president and personally presented them with their degrees at convocation.
The tangible impacts of that approach are obvious. Feridun nearly doubled the number of faculty positions during his tenure, strengthened mental health supports, created the Student Success Office, expanded co-op and research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, significantly increased the number of new study spaces and added the first new residence building on campus in nearly 20 years.
Nobel Prize presser to scavenger hunts
In the three-and-a-half years I worked with the president, I saw him give keynote addresses to 1,000 people, sit down with national and international government leaders, take part in a live global press conference for the 2018 Nobel Prize and even sit down with a few celebrities.
But it is the small moments with students that resonate most.
Whether it was one of the thousands of selfies he took with students, discussions following a town hall or being part of a Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt, those moments speak to what he cared most about as president: the happiness and success of his students.
I waited for about 10 minutes in the rock garden as the president spoke with those two students by the piano. He returned smiling, saying:
“I know, we’re late, but that was worth it.”