Profile with Yolande Chan

Yolande Chan (Jamaica & Hertford 1982) is a Professor and Associate Vice-Principal of Research at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada.   She has received the Queen’s Commerce Teaching Excellence Award and the Commerce Professor Student Life Award.  Previously, she directed The Monieson Centre, a research centre at Queen’s School of Business that coordinates research involving academics, business leaders and policymakers to develop knowledge-based solutions to real-world problems.  Her research focuses on knowledge management, innovation, information technology (IT) strategy, and business-IT alignment.  She holds a Ph.D. from Ivey Business School, Western University, an M.Phil. in Management Studies from Oxford University, and S.M. and S.B. degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

Rhodes Project: Where did you grow up?

Yolande Chan: I grew up in what I like to call “the other Kingston,” Kingston, Jamaica.  I lived there until age 18, when I went to the US to study electrical engineering.  I currently work in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, at Queen’s University.

Rhodes Project: What most surprised you about your time in Oxford?

Yolande Chan: I should say that the most significant surprise was probably my husband – another Rhodes Scholar, Michael Chan.  I met him on his first day in Oxford, and he became my biggest surprise and biggest love.  One of the most wonderful memories I have is going down the River Cherwell with Michael.  He was punting, we had strawberries – it was truly a time when I was fully alive, and fully aware of being in a place of significant historical and cultural importance.  I was very aware of the gift, privilege and joy that was mine to be in Oxford.  Even the buildings speak quietly and elegantly of the city’s history and scholarship.

Rhodes Project: Has a sense of being grateful for privilege always guided you in life?

Yolande Chan: I do live with a sense of privilege.  That also is balanced with a sense of responsibility which has at times felt like a heavy load.  In terms of opportunity I probably am in the top 0.1 percent of all Jamaicans.  I feel a deep sense of responsibility to use that opportunity well – to have all that I am and do reflect well on Jamaica, on women, on minorities, on those who look to me to set an example and to show what can be done.  I want to remind them that there is nothing they cannot do – that they should be hopeful and they too can achieve a great deal.

Rhodes Project: What is something your students have taught you?

Yolande Chan: My students have taught me that my role in the classroom and in the supervision of doctoral and masters theses is service.  I remember a moment which encapsulates this.  I was frustrated with a student who was very demanding. I kept finding that although I had just provided helpful information and reviewed the student’s work, there was always another request for assistance.  And then there was that moment – the moment of recognition, of fresh vision of my purpose, which is to serve.  Of course, there are boundaries that must be set, and expectations that are unreasonable need to be confronted – but all that aside, I recognized that I wasn’t teaching or supervising for my own advancement; I was there for the students.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite past project?

Yolande Chan: For five years, I had the privilege of directing The Monieson Centre, which is a large centre at Queen’s School of Business that has a focus on knowledge translation and applied research.  While there, I developed and prioritized a research stream on economic development.  In the academic system there is a lot of reward and recognition for theoretical development, for pure research – applied research is actually a poor cousin.  It’s not as well appreciated, at least not in North America, so it usually doesn’t get done.  The joy of the project – actually a series of related projects – was that other professors, students, and I could see not just the theoretical benefits of the research we were conducting, as we tested theories and published articles, but we could see the practical impact as communities were transformed.  

The projects involved over 40 partner organizations – municipal, federal and provincial government agencies, businesses, nonprofits, other academic and research institutions – and academics all over Canada and some internationally.  The major research stream had to do with economic development and revitalization of rural communities in Canada.  We looked at issues related to the creative economy and fostering new forms of creative work in areas of Canada which have become economically depressed, and other issues such as knowledge work, worker attraction and retention, innovation and social enterprise.  The specific projects were all designed to have both a local and international impact.  So while we required that the communities studied be Canadian communities, we also required that the lessons learned be applicable globally.  We have continued to present the research findings to national and international audiences.

Rhodes Project: If you hadn’t been an academic, what else would you have done?

Yolande Chan: When I was a little girl, what I really wanted was to be an Anglican priest.  But women weren’t allowed to be priests, so I put that aside. I loved mathematics and English literature; in fact, I just loved studying, so I put aside the desire to be a priest and focused instead on academia.  Work involves mind, heart and body; I had initially wanted to pursue a profession that would have focused on the spiritual side of ourselves, but because that door was shut, I pursued a profession that allowed me to focus on the mind, the soul.  I have no regrets. I love what I do.

Rhodes Project: Does that spiritual part of yourself still inform your life?

Yolande Chan: Absolutely.  Part of what I live by as an academic is the motto, “do no harm.”  And I think that does come from the strength that I have spiritually. I think that does shape my service as an academic.

Rhodes Project: What inspires you and why?

Yolande Chan: Love. I grew up in an extremely loving family and I have always known that I’m loved.  As I confront challenges and difficult people and circumstances, the phrase that comes to mind is “I am constrained by love.”  I do not want to be a perpetrator of anything but love.  So when something negative rises up inside of me – if someone hasn’t really treated me with professional courtesy, or has been in some way destructive – I try to filter that response through the strainer of love.  When my response is to throttle the other, be it a colleague who has not come through on an agreement, who has used me poorly, or a friend who has betrayed me, I remember the great privilege that I have had in growing up knowing that I was loved; that person who has been so awful may not have had that.  It gives me the ability to look at the other and not respond similarly.  It constrains me, but it also gives me the ability to continue because a lot of what we face as professionals is not always pleasant or fair or right, and I choose not to be part of the problem.  I choose not to be shaped by those who are not acting in love.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to your sixteen year old self?

Yolande Chan: I would say be true to yourself. Don’t live the life that others want you to live, however kindly their motivation for trying to determine your path.  I would say know yourself, be true to your design and live life fully, with gratitude and joy.

Rhodes Project: If you were told tomorrow that you had a month-long sabbatical to do anything you please, what would you do?

Yolande Chan: I actually am on leave right now – a very unexpected leave.  I was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few days ago, and I’m now doing exactly what I would do if I had a month-long sabbatical from work.  I am taking the time to rest properly, to eat very well, to spend a lot of time with family and friends, and to read a lot about how to overcome the current challenges that I’m facing.  I have had sabbaticals in the past – they are typical for academics – but this is something entirely new. I am not sad. I am eager to see how I will overcome this unexpected challenge.

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