AUSU Features AU Alumni
What is the future like for someone who has obtained an AU degree?
AU alumni know, and we'd like you to get to know a few of them. May their stories inspire you to
keep working toward your goals
March 19th, 2003, AU held an alumni dinner, where the recipient of the 2002 Distinguished Alumni
Award was honored. Shirlee is a successful author, and you can find out more about her work on her
website. Read below to hear her story about the value of an AU
degree, and be inspired by her enthusiasm.
AU President Dominique Abrioux, Shirlee Matheson and AU Governing Council member Joy Romero
DISTINGUISHED ALUMNI AWARD 2002
March 19, 2003
Shirlee Smith Matheson
It’s a great honour for me to be standing here today, receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award from a distinguished
university. This honour might never have happened had I completed my degree at a traditional university rather than one that
specializes in long-distance education. People like me are often overlooked in larger universities; people like me would not
likely have a chance to stand out in this way.
Academically I am average. But I do have tenacity, diligence, and certain organization skills. Those, combined with the ongoing
assistance of the fine tutors employed by Athabasca University, allowed me to attain a degree. I am the first member of my
immediate family to have achieved this dream.
When I finished high school, I didn’t have the math and science credits to set me on an academic path, and so I thought
that a university education was not possible for me. But one year I chanced to replace a secretary at a high school in Vernon, BC,
for a couple of months and when those teachers started asking about my education, and discovered that only these credits had held
me back, they set me straight. For an Arts degree, one didn’t need Math 30. One didn’t need Science 30. I
could enroll in an arts degree program based on my high school transcript as a Mature Student. Check it out. I did.
I began by attending Okanagan College on a full time basis. One daughter was in grade one at that time, the other was 18
months old. We lived in a mobile home. I would do the difficult homework - such as French and Biology - in the library at the college
(then housed in old army barracks) and study at home at the kitchen table after the children were in bed. It wasn’t easy.
Then we moved to Alberta. I continued my courses through correspondence with UBC. But they weren’t into
long-distance degree-granting and so I continued with Open Learning Institute. And meanwhile I continued to write - stories, plays,
books. When we moved to Calgary I was employed with the Alberta Foundation for the Literary Arts. The Executive Director,
George Melnyk, who holds two masters degrees, asked the same question as had the Vernon high school teachers: Where are
you with your education? His response was that a partly-finished degree was worth nothing and I should complete it. My
choice was to have my credits evaluated by UofC or by Athabasca University. George was then a tutor of a Canadian History course
for Athabasca and assured me that there were no "Mickey Mouse" courses there. It was a bona fide, highly respected
university. And so I enrolled.
It was not always easy. When that brown box would arrive containing my new course-work, I’d groan, knowing I
had several months of hard work ahead of me. I’d mark on the calendar when each paper was due, and plunge in all the time
working full time and writing books. And oh yeah, communicating with my family at intervals. I thank my husband and children for their
support for without them I couldn’t have gone on. Course followed course, always supported by the helpful tutors. "Are you
stuck, Shirlee? I thought you might be having a tough time with this part. Okay, let’s go. We’ll get you through." And
One course left: three more credits in pure science. Scanning the options, I chose the one thought to be the least difficult:
genetics. On my initial telephone conversation with my tutor I said, "This is going to be tough. I’m a humanities student." "No
problem," she said, "well do fine." But it was very difficult. I attended a seminar in Calgary that would surely brighten the path.
It was filled with nursing students - who thought the course an absolute breeze! To add to my tension, I had already booked my graduation
date to coincide with completion of this course June 1992. If I failed, I’d have to delay my convocation. I had to pass! I slugged
Realizing my terror, the tutor came up with a suggestion. "Go into the office in Calgary and look through the books to find other
students in your area who’ve taken the course. Some have offered their assistance to other students."
Oh, really? I scanned the book and chose a woman who lived near me in the northwest. "I’m not likely a very
good helper," she said. "I had to really struggle."
"Did you pass?" I asked.
"Yes, I got 85% but just through hard work. Sometimes I don’t know how I made it."
I breathed a sigh of relief she wasn’t a nursing student!
When Judy and I met she confessed that she was having a difficult time with essays, just barely making passing grades. "Well, I
think I can help you there," I said. "I’m a writer." It was a successful partnership. I passed that dreaded course with 83% -
and her essay marks went from the 60-percent range to the mid and high 80s. Yea! When she got her degree through Athabasca a few
years later she phoned me, and I echoed her delight.
My husband, a friend and I attended my convocation in Athabasca, and had a wonderful time. It was so interesting to note that
all graduating students were strangers to one another, yet we all shared the same experience - the lonely vigils, the hard work, the
supportive telephone and written communication with teachers who cared about our success.
Since attaining my degree, I’ve had eight more books published, with others to be released in 2003 and 2004. On
every resume, on every p.r. announcement, I state that I have a Bachelor of Arts degree from Athabasca University. I’m so
very proud of what this university does, what it means to so many.
Emile Fredericks here would agree. Emile took two degrees from Athabasca University, and echoes my endorsement. In
fact, Emile contributed to the award that I am receiving here tonight. In one of those serendipitous situations, I have known the
Fredericks family for many years, and Emile and his son Tom are here tonight to share in celebrating this award with my husband and
me. My nominator, Sherring Amsden, is here also. Friends, colleagues, helpmates, mentors what a wonderful gathering!