Staying in touch with my Alma Mater

I always associated the word “alma” with soul, because that is the meaning of the same word in Portuguese. So, to me Alma Mater instinctively translated to ‘mother of the soul’. Even though I studied Latin in highschool years ago, I had forgotten the true meaning of the word. It actually translates to “nourishing”, or “kind”. Previously used in ancient Rome in relation to various mother goddesses and also used in Christianity for the Virgin Mary, I think most people know the term in association with their university. I am a bit disappointed with the true translation because I feel there is something inherently philosophical and beautiful about having a mother that shaped your knowledge. Having said that, universities do nourish you from a knowledge point of view.

Being a double alumnus from the University of Toronto it cuts back on the number of ‘almae matres’ I have, or can stay in touch with. Still being a fairly new immigrant to the UK, one of the easiest way of getting to know new people or go to events it through my connection with UofT. As it turns out I am lucky that one of the biggest alumni communities outside of Canada is in fact in London, and this week there were two events on the menu. The first was a reception hosted by the U15, a group of research intensive universities in Canada. The University of Toronto naturally had a strong presence, and a fun fact is that the manager of regional programs often present at these events is my former boss when I worked in University Administration during my undergraduate degree.

While it was a joint event with the entire group of 15 universities it struck me that the groups dispersed around the room were very homogeneous: everyone from the same university stuck mostly together. The whole point of these events, in my view, is to foster some networking across other groups of professionals with a related common connection: Canada. Usually, the UofT alumni events are exclusive to UofT Alumni. Not shockingly as the name suggests. This means we already get to meet our fellow colleagues with this connection, but for some reason people still don’t seem to mingle very much at such a joint event. Are we all afraid to network? Is it too comfortable to stick to a group we “know”, even if all we have in common is our university? Then shouldn’t it be just as easy to talk to a stranger from another university where you have the country you studied in common? Maybe I am completely wrong and people were mingling but as far as I saw that was not the case for the majority. This became pretty clear when during the speech each university was asked to cheer. Little cheer-pockets erupted from around the room where groups huddled close to their alma mater’s table.

The second event I ‘cooked up’ together with the UofT alumni department. This time a potluck dinner at my house. An excellent excuse to actually use the space we all pay a lot for when living in London. Similarly, I was excited to actually use some of my nice plates and wine glasses. I was impressed with the number of people showing up, and from how far away some of them came. It is becoming ever more apparent to me that living in London really means living in a particular area of London. Once the weekend rolls around you don’t really leave your neighbourhood, because just crossing the city can take over an hour and a half. Given this is the trend I’ve seen with people I try to meet up with on weekends I was double impressed with the turnout at my flat.

Yes. I suppose I say “flat” now.

cake image

Me and a dinner guest showing off the cake she made in UofT’s colours!

A perhaps obvious thing to mention: everyone was a stranger to everyone. It could have been awkward but instead of managed to have some really interesting conversation. I was surprised that some guests thought it was brave for me to have random strangers over at my house, but I figure how crazy can they be coming out of the University of Toronto? Just kidding…

Completely unintentionally it was a ladies-night and conversation flowed from our degrees, to careers, and to our experiences living in London. Universally everyone was so positive about their university experience. It became a big part of the conversation and it struck me because when I used to talk to fellow graduate students while still at UofT the tone of the conversation used to be the complete opposite. The situation remind me of teenagers who complain passionately about their mother and then become the best of friends in their adult life. It may not be too different with your alma mother: anything that seems like a big deal at the time and is tremendously irritating is easily forgotten. What remains is just affection for the institution or people who profoundly shaped your life. Whether that is your biological mater, or your alma mater. 


Christine Buske is a former academic who left science at the bench, and now considers herself a woman in tech. She is a frequently invited speaker, and enjoys talking about career transformation (particularly leaving academia for the business world), tech, issues around women in tech, product management, agile, and outreach. She is a proud Canadian resident, and qualifies as a "serial expat".


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