Feb. 3, 2020

Fond memories forge lasting bonds for multigenerational alumni families

Next Monday (Feb. 17) is Family Day in Alberta. As families gather for the long weekend, just imagine the dinner-table conversations of multigenerational clans whose members all attended UCalgary
Angs at 2019 convocation
Angs at 2019 convocation

“Remember getting our wedding photos taken under the prairie chicken? Or the year I had to hold down three part-time jobs to pay for my living expenses?” Helen Ang, BComm’93, slaps these nostalgic gems down on her kitchen table while her husband, Ben Ang, BA’91, adds to them. Memories surface of poring over microfiche in the bowels of the old MacKimmie Library, grabbing coffees at Company’s Coming, and lugging home groceries, because who had a car? This is how the Angs, along with their three children, roll.

The family’s connections to UCalgary are thick. Not only did Helen and Ben meet at their alma mater, but they also got married in Mac Hall. Ben grew up in Calgary; Helen was an international student from Hong Kong. They’ve stayed connected to the university since their student days, and now they see their children loving it as much as they do.

The Angs are just one of many families whose ties to UCalgary go back multiple generations.

  • Photo above, from left: Nathan, Jasper, Helen, Jessica and Ben Ang at Jessica’s recent convocation. All five Angs are deeply connected to UCalgary.
Angs under Prairie Chicken

After Ben and Helen met at UCalgary, they had their wedding photos taken under the Prairie Chicken.

Courtesy Ang family

'I wanted to give our kids the same positive experience'

These ties can include obvious factors such as economics and proximity. Good reasons, say Ben and Helen, who wanted to pay for tuition and perhaps study-abroad programs for their children: Jessica, BKin’19; Jasper, currently taking a dual degree in business and kinesiology; and, Nathan, who, as of next fall, will study engineering. But those aren’t the only reasons for keeping the UCalgary connection.

“Of course, I loved the freedom I was given,” says Helen. “And the homesickness I thought I might get, never happened. Students were friendly and the campus was easy to navigate, so I wanted to give our kids the same positive experience.”

Never, ever discount the emotional factor, says Dr. Derek Hassay, PhD, RBC professor of entrepreneurial thinking at the Haskayne School of Business. Hassay has researched alumni and their relationships to their alma maters.For many parents, the opportunity for a child to join them as a legacy of a given university is most obviously driven in part by their desire for the child to enjoy the same, or better, experience than they had,” he says.

“They know the traditions, the culture, quality of education, dorms, facilities and so on. In addition, the child’s enrolment allows the parents to renew their personal connection to their alma mater — reliving vicariously through their child’s experiences.”

Billington Reid family

Three alumnae — Susan Reid Billington, Verna Reid and Lois Reid — swap campus stories.

100% UCalgary family over three generations

The members of the Reid and Billington families couldn’t agree more. Clustered around 91-year-old Dr. Verna Reid, MA'73, PhD'03, who completed her PhD in Communication Studies from UCalgary at the age of 75, are her daughters Lois Reid, BEd’75, and Susan Reid Billington, BA’82, LLB’85. Not only did the two sisters and their brother, John, BMus’79, follow in their parents’ footsteps (their father, Craig, also had ties to UCalgary), but Susan and her husband Rick’s two children Cathy, BMus’10, and Jim, BA’14, are also UCalgary alumni.

Verna wasn’t finished after getting her degree. She went on to rewrite and publish her thesis as a book titled Women Between when she was 80. And Susan continues her close connection to UCalgary, where she’s an associate professor in the Faculty of Law as well as the faculty's executive director of student legal assistance.

UCalgary memories ricochet around the table when this family gathers — just as they did decades ago when Lois took the No. 20 bus to classes. Verna tells trailblazing stories of how, when she came to apply for a position at SAIT to teach English and had to produce her transcripts, people didn’t believe she had earned a BA (with double honours in Philosophy and English) and questioned whether her husband knew she was applying for the job.

Memories of fun and romance 

Susan laughs as she recalls how she worked with her future husband, Rick Billington, BA'80, LLB'82, when she was president of a political club on campus. He was president of the Debate Club, and they ended up competing for a seat at a Model Parliament session. “I still remember him saying, ‘There are no chairs on your side of the house’ and me tapping my knee,” she recalls. “At some point, he crossed the floor and plopped down on my lap and . . . well, that was the beginning.”

There was also the time Susan's pals flicked enough beer caps into a ceiling tile that the tile came crashing down.

Lois, meanwhile, recalls the camaraderie that began when she was a UCalgary student and that was nurtured throughout her 25-year career as a schoolteacher and elementary-school principal. “I was always bumping into people I knew,” she says. “Always.”

Proximity’s not such a big reason anymore

The historic ties that bind alumni to their alma mater are certainly thicker if you remain in one place your entire life. “Not that that’s the only reason to attend,” points out Susan. “It may have been before, but the University of Calgary is now a very well-respected university that has served all of us in a variety of careers very, very well. I look at our children, who are pretty recent grads, and they both have landed jobs in their respective fields and are now happy in their careers." 

Jacquie Vincent

Jacquie Vincent remembers when the UCalgary campus consisted of four buildings.

Although retired teacher/librarian Jacquie Vincent, BA’69, BEd’71, also shares numerous family connections to UCalgary, her experience differs greatly from that of her daughter, Leanne, BSc’96, BA’98. Jacquie went to UCalgary back in the 1960s, when most girls parted their hair in the middle and when you were lucky to own a typewriter. This was long before lattes and pantyhose and pasta (besides spaghetti and mac 'n' cheese) were widely available, back when the campus consisted of four solitary buildings.

“There were certainly no tunnels or Plus-15s back then and the winds . . . they would howl,” Jacquie says, remembering how thrilled she was when it was decided that “girls could wear slacks and weren’t stuck in dresses.”

Finances can drive enrolment decision

Unlike the Angs, Reids and Billingtons, who had many reasons for enrolling their offspring at UCalgary, it was solely financial reasons that prompted Jacquie and her two sisters to register at the university. “Education was a huge value in our home, but there wasn’t a lot of disposable income,” Jacquie says, adding that, back then, very few people ever ate in a cafeteria or at Mac Hall. “Most of us just brought our own lunches.”

As for stories swapped around the kitchen table, Jacquie’s daughter Leanne explains they were more like “cautionary tales about time management.” Juggling varsity track-team commitments with a part-time job certainly left Leanne stressed but, she says with a laugh, “Perhaps the bigger bond was my utterly atrocious essay writing, where my mom would wonder aloud how it was possible to construct a sentence without any verbs.

“Answer: Pretty easily.”

Hassay maintains that our “feelings about our institutions are dominated by our social experience, which is consistent with research on alumni support. You are more likely to give where you had fun, met your future partner, or participated in social or sports activities.”

Helen, who now volunteers with the university in a mentor-mentee program, agrees. “You may work to make a living, but you make a life by helping others,” she says. “The university certainly helped my husband and I become where we are today.”

Is it convenience, or reputation that draws us here?

But why do alma mater-related familial ties often seem more pronounced south of the border, or even at certain universities in Eastern Canada?

“It’s not to the same extent as the States, but there are pockets of high loyalty and deep historic support in Canada,” explains Hassay. “For instance, look at St. Francis Xavier grads and the (in)famous X-ring [in Nova Scotia], or consider McGill or some of Ontario’s universities.

“What really makes things different in Ontario with the University of Toronto, McMaster, Queen’s and Western is their central admissions system. There, students typically would apply to three schools so these top-tier institutions would be in the consideration set of most applicants. In the West, my experience is that many people select a school more on convenience than reputation: ‘It’s close, I can live at home . . .’”

Lois and Susan agree those reasons remain but are, nevertheless, shifting. “The University of Calgary is now considered a prestigious place to go and, like all respected post-secondaries, it is harder to get into,” says Lois. “I think more people today go to post-secondary to get a degree; it’s less about the parties.”

Yet, the parties do endure. Throughout our lives, we hoist ourselves and others up. Now and again, we lift our eyes high to where our dreams meet our potential. If all this time later, when we raise our inner gaze and see  — say, beer caps embedded in a ceiling tile — it’s evidence of a life well lived.

Get-togethers — whether in a dorm over pizza or a morning meet-up over steaming coffee and crumbling muffins — can tie our shared memories together, an ever-present package we can open again and again, even around a kitchen table.

And so do the memories. They remind us of who we are and provide us with the impetus to send our children to the place that shaped our lives, so that they may begin, as we did, to explore.