By Sandra McLean
Edward Fenner remembers well what his mother told him as a boy growing up – always leave things better than you found them. Fenner took those words to heart. Not long after starting at York as a student in 2004 at the ripe age of 40, he decided to put that advice into practice.
Seeing that there was a real lack of services catering to the older student, Fenner decided to start the York University Mature Students Organization (YUMSO), a club where students could find a quiet place to study, counselling, social activities and a place to connect. But that’s not all. Fenner also revived Existere: Journal of Arts and Literature at York, now a thriving, student-run venture.
It is for these two things in particular, as well as his academic achievements – he’s on the Dean’s Honour Roll – that Fenner was awarded the Murray G. Ross Award, named for York’s founding president, during the Spring Convocation ceremony Monday. Fenner graduated with an Honours BA in professional writing with a minor in science & society studies. “I was thunderstruck, really. I was beside myself. It is an amazing feeling,” he says about receiving the medal.
His nominator for the award, Brian Poser, associate director of the Atkinson Centre for Mature & Part-time Students (ACMAPS), says when he brought together all of Fenner’s accomplishments, their number surprised even him. In addition to earning several scholarships, Fenner is publisher and former executive editor of Existere, and is a three-time winner of the Kent Haworth Playwriting Contest and two-time winner of the Vanier College Master’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to Student Life. He still found time to volunteer at Vanier College’s annual book sale and have two plays produced with Vanier College Productions.
For his contributions, he was made a Fellow of Vanier College, an unusual honour for an undergraduate student. Last Thursday, he was also awarded a Vanier Master’s Award for Academic Achievement & Outstanding Contribution to the college.
“He’s shown himself to be a tireless worker and he’s a nice emblem for lifelong learning,” says Poser. “He has a vision and he goes after it.”
When Fenner first started at York, he expected to be like any other mature student. He had found that without a degree he was being passed over for promotions at work and wanted to remedy that. “I came back to school with my eyes wide open to get a better position and pay,” he says.
The first meeting he held for YUMSO in 2004 attracted 28 students. “It took off from there. When I left in 2008 there were about 600 members. There are about 700 or so now,” says Fenner. “It really gives students a leg up with things.”
The mandate of supporting mature students was taken up by ACMAPS when it started in 2007, but YUMSO continues to thrive, often working in concert with ACMAPS. Fenner served with ACMAPS as its first student adviser and prior to that was hired by Student Community & Leadership Development on contract to help organize the first University-wide orientation for mature and part-time students. He is currently a member of ACMAPS’s Advisory Board.
Fenner hopes to broaden the reach of mature students through his latest project – the Canadian Assembly of Mature Student Organizations, which he got off the ground last year and is now developing a Web site for. It will be a place where mature student organizations from universities and colleges across the nation can come together and share their expertise, experiences and challenges. “I’m a self starter,” he says. “So I saw a need to gather and share information.”
When it came to Existere, housed at Vanier College, Fenner realized the journal, which had gone by the wayside, had a lot of potential. It is an up-and-coming journal, publishing work from York students as well as from writers as far away as Asia, Africa and Europe. Montreal-based poet Rebecca Leah Pãpucaru, whose work appeared in the spring/summer 2009 edition of the journal, has had her poem selected to be published in the upcoming 2010 anthology of The Best Canadian Poetry in English, edited by poet Lorna Crozier and published by Tightrope Books. “It’s the first time we broke into that kind of thing. We’re really quite tickled by that,” says Fenner.
Existere is more than a journal; it is an opportunity for students to gain some experiential learning, says Fenner, who is also the publicist for the annual Words Alive Literary Festival. “It gives them an opportunity that they wouldn’t necessarily get through normal school activities. It’s not a product of their studies, but it is a collaborative effort. It’s important enough that it contributes to Canadian culture.”
He hopes Existere will one day become one of the leading literary journals in this country, but for now he is pulling back and letting other students take over as he concentrates on his new studies. He will begin a master’s degree in the new Graduate Program in Science & Technology Studies at York in the fall, while working at York International.
So what did Fenner get out of his involvement? (He stopped counting, he says, after 2,000 volunteer hours.) “I got the satisfaction of creating something that was useful to people. The mature students’ profile has been raised and is being given more attention, and with Existere – it is spreading York talent and skills beyond our borders.”
As Poser says, “Edward stands as an excellent model of what tremendous success can be accomplished when someone is fully engaged in curricular and extracurricular life.” A perfect fit for the Murray G. Ross Award.
Thanks to York University’s daily online newsletter Yfile for giving Learning Curves permission to reprint this article here. It originally appeared in Yfile on June 15, 2010.