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Last but not least: the last lecture comes to Canada

Campus event aims to celebrate the end of the academic year and honour someone special

Students chose Professor Brian Maraj to deliver this year’s last lecture at University of Alberta.
Students chose Professor Brian Maraj to deliver this year’s last lecture at University of Alberta.

The end of the academic year has given rise to a host of farewell traditions and activities, but in recent years, one activity in particular has capitalized on the finality of graduation. The last lecture – a send-off lecture given to graduates, students or alumni – is becoming an increasingly common trend at Canadian universities. It’s a relatively new phenomenon, modeled after the 2007 lecture given by Randy Pausch, a terminally-ill computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Dr. Pausch’s lecture, titled “Achieving your Childhood Dreams,” touched on the key moments in his life and the lessons he learned along the way, and has been viewed online by millions. His bestselling book, The Last Lecture, has been translated into 35 languages.

Now, Canadian universities are taking part. Brock University, University of Guelph, University of Ottawa and University of Alberta, among others, all host last lectures.

At U of Alberta, which has hosted a last lecture for the past eight years, it’s become a campus-wide event for both past and current students. Students can nominate their favourite professors and vote for one of the top three finalists to give the lecture.

Chloe Chalmers, the coordinator of student engagement at U of Alberta, says over 120 faculty members were nominated this year, and more than 13,000 votes were cast for the finalists. “It’s incredible,” she says. “With very little prompting and no incentive, hundreds of students are taking the time to go online and write a nomination for a prof that’s inspired them.”

Brian Maraj, a professor in the faculty of physical education and recreation as well as academic dean of the university’s St. Joseph’s College, was elected this year’s winner. “Maraj is the type of professor that can light up an entire lecture theatre with his charisma, enthusiasm and passion. He is not only a lecturer, he is a performer,” one student said in their last lecture nomination for him.

Dr. Maraj delivered the lecture on April 9. Though he has no plans to retire – some last lectures are reserved for professors who’ve reached retirement – he took the opportunity to encourage students to trust themselves, find their passions and “enjoy the ride.”

“It was a great evening and I’m glad to be chosen,” he says. “It’s humbling … when students recognize you for the effect you might have made on them – which is not why you teach, but when it does come about, it’s really quite special.”

At Western University, the last lecture is a smaller and more formal celebration meant for about 400 members of the graduating class, says student outreach associate Meghan Cocurullo. “We bring back a prominent graduate from Western to give a keynote speech,” she says.

At Brock University, the last lecture was instituted in 2013 by Barry Joe, director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Educational Technologies. Dr. Joe says he decided to bring the tradition to Brock after realizing two long-time colleagues were stepping down.

“I thought, what better way to honour them?” he says. “You can give them a painting, you can give them all sorts of things, but this is a chance [for them] to pass on their years and years and years of teaching and learning.”

To Dr. Joe, there is finality in the last lecture. A long-time member of the Brock community, he hosted this year’s talk as his own final farewell after 35 years of teaching.

Jennifer Halsall is a third-year journalism student at Carleton University doing a two-week internship at University Affairs.

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