In memory of a man who fought for racialized student’s opportunities

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Herbert FernandoIn July 1965, Herbert Fernando, his professor wife Aggie and their two children – which quickly became three – departed Sri Lanka to embark on a new life in Waterloo. Herbert was eager to begin his tenure as associate professor in a newly created Department of Biology at the University of Waterloo. Over the next 33 years, he would go on to create an incredible legacy of teaching that put student experience and student success above all else. Herbert Fernando was a tireless advocate for all student education that incorporated experiential learning outside of the classroom.

Herbert’s love of fieldwork, and his belief that field courses play an essential role in the full education of biologists is shared widely by Waterloo’s current faculty members. Field studies allow students to gather their own data, learn through direct observation and allow for scientific research through field experiments. However, the rising costs of field courses, some in excess of $2500 for a trip within Canada, or over $4000 for field courses in Brazil or Costa Rica, left many students unable to participate. In fact, it was noted by associate professor and field course coordinator, Heidi Swanson, that participation levels were even lower in students of black and indigenous communities. After confirming within to her Ontario network of peers that there was an equity issue, she reached out to fellow Waterloo biologists to see what could be done to promote wider student diversity in field courses.

Lecturer and teaching fellow, Marcel Pinheiro and current biology chair, Kirsten Müller, are both strong believers in the value of experience gained by field courses and were quick to jump on board to establish an award to help Black and Indigenous students enroll in biology field courses. It was aptly named after Professor Herbert Fernando.

Herbert Fernando in his office at UWaterloo“I think naming this award after Herbert would make him proud,” Pinheiro says. “He was a champion of diversity and equity for students and, of course, valued the type of education only a field course could provide.”

Kirsten Müller has been on her fair share of field courses from Newfoundland to Costa Rica, and describes them as critical to the student experience. She believes that helping the Black and Indigenous students enroll in these courses will ultimately be for the betterment of science and learning. “Right now we’re potentially missing out on people who could be great field researchers simply due to the financial barriers that currently exist,” she says. “Field courses are just too important to be limited for financial reasons.”

Herbert Fernando passed away in 2018 after an extraordinary full life. Those that remember him recall a generous, happy individual who was a marvelous cook, passionate educator and had a knack for breaking out into Russian song for seemingly no reason except to make others smile. His widow, Aggie, was touched by the establishment of this memorial award in his honour and has contributed on behalf of his family. His daughter Shanti spoke about his advocacy for racialized students: “He was their voice when they couldn’t find it. Education should be accessible for everybody and Dad would be very honoured to have his name associated with an award that helped provide that education.”


About the Herbert Fernando Memorial Award

Two awards, valued at $500 each, are available annually for Black or Indigenous undergraduate students enrolled in a field-based course in the Department of Biology, in the Faculty of Science. Selection is based on academic excellence in ecology-based courses (minimum 3 courses taken). To be considered, interested students are asked to self-identify their eligibility by completing an on-line form by January 15 of each year. This award is made possible by donations from faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the University and of Professor Herbert Fernando, who supported diversity and equity for students in the Department of Biology. To learn more about this award visit the Student Awards and Financial Aid listing of the Herbert Fernando Memorial Award.

Help us continue the legacy of Herbert Fernando by supporting his memorial fund. Your donation will help create a more diverse scientific community by ensuring that Black and Indigenous students can access these critical biology field courses.