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Raina first started her time in the higher education sector back in 1947 as a student at the University of Alberta, and has yet to leave since. She’s pictured here in her yearbook from the U of A. Photo: Keelan Buck.

Retired professor, continuing student shares insights on life and learning

On the surface, the vast majority of the 40,000-plus students enrolled at the U of O—like any university or college—are new learners, teenagers, young adults. They come from high schools and part-time jobs; they move into campus residences and five-room apartments; they are students living a student’s life.

But diversity on campus runs deeper than you may think.

Meet Raina.

At almost 90 years old, Raina has more experience under her belt than almost anyone at the U of O. She is a pathogenic microbiologist, has a handful of degrees—including a PhD in virology and a post-doctorate in immunology, was a researcher and a professor, and has been recognized by the Canadian Society of Microbiologists. Not to mention, she is a mother, a grandmother, and a wife.

And yes, if you were wondering, she’s also a student at the U of O, returning to the environment she learned to love because she has always loved to learn.

The Fulcrum had the chance to sit down with Raina and talk about life, learning, change, challenges, and much more.

‘I don’t play bridge’

Raina explains that she is registered as a special student. More precisely, she takes advantage of a little-known opportunity offered by the university called auditing. For a reduced price and no evaluations or credits, she gets to follow classes on campus and enjoy some other perks too, such as library privileges.

“I did these courses after I retired from teaching, just to keep myself busy,” she explained. “I don’t play bridge; I hate it!”

Of course, there is a lot more to it than that.

“When you’re involved at the university for so long, it becomes a part of you,” she said. “I’ve just always been interested in knowledge, and when I’m on the campus, on several campuses, I want to broaden my outlook on life.”

Pacing herself at one or two courses wherever they fit, Raina the microbiologist has used her retirement to explore all sorts of new horizons. These include other fields of the sciences, calculus, history, French, law, psychology, and geology.

“I took about 14 geology courses … because my husband is a geologist, a geology professor,” she said. “We would go out, and I would have to wait, (because) I’m a microbiologist, not a macrobiologist. I thought I’d take a course in geology (to) understand, and we’ll have more to discuss between us.”

For Raina, being a lifelong learner means keeping up with the world, and she says that is crucial.

“You’re in a dynamic world … and you have to keep on going to keep up with everything,” she explained. “You look at different disciplines, and you look at them with different eyes.”

‘A different world’

Raina’s relationship with university began generations before most of those now studying at the U of O.

“I went to university in 1947 with the veterans,” she remembered. “I was in a pre-med class of 99, and only 12 of us were non-vets. There were three girls: I was the only non-veteran girl.”

To this day, she holds vivid memories from her early years at the University of Alberta, where she completed a bachelor of science and later her first research degree. She points to the social and historical climate of post-war Canada as having significant influences on student culture.

“The veterans had been through the war, they knew what they wanted, and they didn’t accept any nonsense from anybody,” she said. “We were always having standoffs between the students and the professors.”

From what she observes now in her auditing, something has certainly changed on this front.

“You’re in a different world. Now I find students don’t challenge the professor… they accept what’s being told.”

Nevertheless, she acknowledges a shift on the side of professors, too.

“I was in one calculus class, and when one student did challenge him, the professor said, ‘I am the professor, and what I say is right,’” she recalled. “I told my students, ‘If I say something and you have other information, bring it, and I’ll change what I say,’ and that’s how I think they should approach the professors.”

Of course, these were not the only transformations that Raina witnessed over more than half a century on university campuses.

“It’s the technology that’s really amazing, because when I was a grad student, from 1950 to ’52, we had no copying machines,” she said. “We had to go into the stacks to look at the journals, and we had no way of copying anything at all … we wrote everything out.”

After pausing to reflect, she then brings up a topic that proves particularly relevant in today’s political vortex.

“The openness of the information and the exchange of information … to me, before, it was quite fluid, and over the years now since I retired it’s become less (so),” she said. “I think that it’s important … that we be truthful.”

‘You’d do the extra bits’

As her career moved forward, Raina explains how she fell in love with microbiology. For a moment, her exuberance shines bright.

“It was a real passion (for) me. It was … Golly! It was going into another world!”

That being said, she admits entering the discipline was very much an uphill battle. As a young woman looking to break into the sciences in the mid-20th century, she faced particular obstacles—some of which have disappeared, and others of which have endured.

“Let’s face it, it was really tough, because women were always paid less and were always given the jobs that nobody else wanted,” she said. “You’d always take anything that was offered. You’d do the extra bits.”

She did not let that stop her—partly because there were other challenges to grapple with.

“The money was low, and for my research project—which was to study amino acid metabolism in bacteria—I had a cardboard box for my experimental hood, and I had to make my own equipment because it wasn’t available.”

She talks about waking up early to collect fresh cow stools, receiving reprimands for being outspoken, and even suffering some liver damage from exposure to chemicals.

“You had to be tough!”

‘Follow microbial tenets’

When Raina is asked whether she sees her past self in the young students who surround her at the U of O, she answers like a true scientist:

“Oh come on, the human type, nature, is very conservative.”

One can imagine how, having returned to university as a student after all these years, she would be one of the most credible sources of advice for young people facing change and challenges.

“When you go to university, and you’re living away from home, you’re cutting apron strings … And that to me is when you first really start developing your personality,” she said.

And when it comes to surviving these changes and making a successful life after graduation, she says it’s as simple as learning from the very same “bugs” that she studied for a living.

“Follow microbial tenets: opportunistic, adaptable, persistent for success and survival,” she said. “The bugs are still here, and they still control our world a lot. Keep on educating yourself … so you can see how you interact with other disciplines and other people.”

“And, just keep on going,” she added.

If you see Raina on campus, you know she takes her own advice to heart.