Volume 9, Number 10 January 25, 2002

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Bobyn finds delight in kids, PhD studies & top GSA job

By Karin Melberg Schwier

When each of Joan Bobyn’s children turned 18, she took them by the hand and led them to the nearest polling booth as soon as the next election rolled around. “Some people die for this privilege,” she told them. “If you participate, you can complain all you want, but not until you pitch in and help out.”

When the 51-year-old mom of four, who is working on a PhD in Pharmacy & Nutrition, was asked by last year’s Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) President Nikki Hipkin to run for the GSA’s top spot, Bobyn wasn’t sure she was the one to represent the University’s 1,767 graduate students. But she decided to follow her own advice.

GSA President Joan Bobyn

“She didn’t really know me, other than I was the mouthy one always putting up my hand with a question! I figure if I want to know, someone else must want to ask the same thing,” Bobyn laughs. “Anyway, Nikki finally persuaded me. Nobody ran against me, so it’s not like I’m anyone’s first choice!” She adds that Hipkin took over as president during a particularly difficult time and did a wonderful job. There were some disenchanted people at that time, Bobyn says, but “Nikki did a tremendous job and the rest of the executive were very good at stepping up. They all pitch in and work very hard.”

The Association represents all full- and part-time graduate students to the University as a whole, specifically to administration, to other student bodies on campus, and to the public.

“We are basically the voice of the members of the GSA,” she says. “We offer health and dental insurance programs that we negotiate yearly. We’re here to field questions. We set people in the right direction for help and support.  All full and part-time grad students are automatically members through a fee with their tuition. We provide orientation in the fall. There is a huge membership of international students – about 25 per cent – so there is a lot of assistance to provide and we work closely with the International Students Office. A big part of what we do is represent the graduate students on practically every University committee, so we really do have a presence and a voice.” The GSA also provides a number of bursaries and is heavily involved in a review of scholarships, salary and tuition for graduate students. The GSA plans to lobby the Minister of Post-Secondary Education early in the new year.

“In order to make us competitive and attract the best graduate students here,” Bobyn adds, “we need higher scholarships and more of them.” The work by the GSA has “been received very favorably by administration.”

In fact, the U of S administration has been very supportive of the GSA and actively listens to the concerns presented, Bobyn says. The working relationship is one of mutual respect.

“President MacKinnon is a pleasure to work with. He meets with us once a month for a breakfast, an informal opportunity to discuss whatever comes up. The USSU (U of S Students’ Union) meets at the same time. The President and the whole administration have been extremely approachable and supportive. I think this tone comes from the President’s Office, and the University is committed to enhancing the student experience. I never feel that anything we put forward is politely received and just set aside.” She also praises the College of Graduate Studies. “They just bend over backwards to help us at every opportunity.”

In addition to her work as GSA President, which has consumed “as few as eight to as many as 24 hours a week,” Bobyn carries a full load as a graduate student.

She graduated here in 1971 with a Pharmacy degree and has worked for her entire career at Royal University Hospital (RUH), first with a hospital pharmacy residency and then was offered a position.

“I married a farmer and we moved out to the farm at Asquith in 1973. I commuted for awhile and then I started having kids in 1974. I stayed home for 11 years having children, a really long maternity leave!” she laughs. When she and her husband separated, she moved back to Saskatoon with the children in 1993. It was then that she started thinking seriously about going back to school. Returning to medicine had been lurking in her mind, but she decided that was not really possible with four kids. An initial interest in children with cystic fibrosis and their malabsorption difficulties led to a focus on biochemistry of nutrition and how things worked – or did not work in someone with CF – on a cellular level. She decided to come back for a PhD in nutrition.

“I don’t have a master’s or an undergraduate degree in nutrition, so I started in the master’s program and after two years, switched into a PhD stream. Started off studying bacteria in the large intestine.” When her supervisor left academia and she was unable to get a grant for her area of study, Bobyn was offered a position with a new supervisor, Phyllis Paterson in the College of Pharmacy & Nutrition.

“She is absolutely wonderful and we’re looking at stroke, so I’m working in the brain now – looking at whether the outcome of stroke is more significant if you have a protein deficiency than would be the case with an equivalent stroke in another individual.” Bobyn plans to finish in a year, and is now in her fifth year of education leave from RUH.

“My ideal situation would be to teach here and conduct research because I bridge the gap between pharmacy and nutrition.”  There is only one other person in Canada she knows of who has a graduate degree in nutrition and an undergraduate degree in pharmacy. He’s a U of S alumnus.

Bobyn is concerned by GSA’s reputation for being an apathetic body. She points out that the focus of graduate students is generally different from that of undergrads. Most are older with families. Many are international students. Graduate studies are very time consuming, she says, with most students involved in research that often requires work at night or being in the lab on weekends.

Bobyn is anxious to talk about another initiative under way – one she thinks proves that the GSA is anything but apathetic.

“If you look across the country, almost every campus has their own graduate student facility,” says Bobyn, spreading a campus map out on the table. “Last year, we put quite a comprehensive plan together based on our needs, what other campuses were offering in the way of services and resources for their students. The administration accepted the proposal very favorably and gave it to the University architects to consider as part of the long-range planning.”

After several hikes around campus to search for a possible home in an existing building, Bobyn says the answer “came out of the blue.”  As part of the University’s Core Area Master Plan, consultants have recommended as one of the first items on the agenda the building of a graduate student residence close to the Canadian Light Source synchrotron. It would include 30-40 beds for visiting researchers to the CLS.  The University may agree to loan the Association money to be paid back over 25 years in a type of rent-to-own arrangement for 5,000 sq. ft. of that building.

“If this goes ahead, we’re looking at occupancy in July 2003. This is a stroke of brilliance and coincidence and pure luck,” Bobyn says in disbelief. “We’re ecstatic. It all ties in with the master enrolment plan, trying to attract more researchers, more graduate students. This is all in the approval stage, so we don’t know what will happen, but we know it is being considered.”

Bobyn explains that “if all this comes true,” the GSA may have office space, a computer lab and study area, a large boardroom, a meeting room where students can have theses defenses, visiting students can make presentations and CLS can book meetings or seminars. Down the road, Bobyn envisions a low-key pub/lounge where grad students, professors and visiting researchers can have a quiet drink. A fresh-food co-op where students can find fruits and vegetables, milk, bread and other staples is part of Bobyn’s dream. The feasibility of a daycare will be explored. A wide screen TV would feature World Cup soccer, rugby and other events “so our international students can stay connected to home.”  As part of the Core Area Master Plan, this facility would fit in with the development of a second bowl with lots of green space and direct access through to the river, in keeping with the original design of the existing bowl.

“If it is approved, then construction would begin this summer,” she enthuses. “So we are thrilled to bits. We’ll hold a referendum probably in February because tied-in would be some increase in fees, probably small increments over the next five years,” Bobyn says, noting that it will be a hard sell with increases in tuition also coming. “We were able to save the students $35 this year on their health and dental insurance program over and above what they voted on and approved last year. I guess the main selling point will be that for their $37.50 GSA fee now, they get this office and the services we can run out of here. For a little bit more, we can have our own facility with a wide variety of services and amenities.”

With all these possibilities afloat, plus the regular work of the GSA, Bobyn continues with her own studies, and went into Christmas cramming for her comprehensive exams. She had plenty to talk about over the holiday with her four children, all of whom have attended university. Her oldest, 27, is working on his second degree, in Engineering. Her daughter has a degree in Kinesiology and is teaching exercise rehabilitation in Montreal. The third is in his last year of a BA in Drama (“There’s always a non-conformist in every crowd!”) and the youngest, 19, went to the University of Calgary this year to study Kinesiology. “They have a program called Outdoor Pursuits, so he says he’s getting a degree in camping,” she grins.

“I’ve always told my children there are three things to live by,” Bobyn counts on her fingers:

“One, you have to allow some time each day for some silliness. Two, always have a prop in your pocket. And three, look for venues of delight.  The last one is something my daughter coined. Delight in something you never expected to find, something that makes you smile, makes you joyful.  You don’t get a venue of delight every day, but I think we just have to look for them.”

When you’re a single mom with four kids, Bobyn philosophizes, “you learn to juggle when they’re all involved in sports and activities and you only have one car. You just do it. If you want something done, you just do it or ask the busiest person. When I thought about taking on this job, I figured it’s only for one year. Maybe it’s one of those venues I tell my kids to look for. I’m learning so much about the University and the people here; the opportunity for growth is phenomenal. It’s a chance that’s not going to come along again.”

Raising an eyebrow, she leans forward and whispers, “I’m not sure how delighted my supervisor is about me having this job, but I’m loving every minute of it!”

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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