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Healthy Minds Healthy College

Interview with Stan Chung (RRC VP Academic and Research)

July 22, 2013

StanChungRed River College’s VP Academic and Research Stan Sae-Hoon Chung joined RRC in 2012 because of its reputation as a global leader in advanced learning. Stan is an award-winning writer, visionary advocate for life-changing learning, and passionate believer in the college as an engine for social and economic transformation (full bio here). Mike Krywy (Chair of the Wellness Committee) sat down with Stan to get his thoughts about wellness.


Q: Wellness is sometimes broken up into physical, mental and spiritual aspects. What are your thoughts on this way of thinking?

I agree with that breakdown, as all those aspects are important. But I also think of wellness in terms of individual wellness, organizational wellness and global wellness. And those same three principles – physical, mental and spiritual – would apply to all three.

Take individual wellness. If we are not well as individuals, how can we be well as a community or as a people? So if individual wellness is not connected to the workplace or we fail to see the connection, you CAN end up with challenges. Then you have to ask, “What is the missing ingredient? Why are people not well or unhappy at work? What can we do to sustain and support individual wellness?” For me, the answer resides in a uniting sense of purpose.

Q: What are the key components of organizational wellness?

Organizational wellness can be defined in many ways. One way to understand it is through the strength of social bonds. We are all individuals linked in a network or community, and it is important to be socially connected, whether that’s at home or at work.

A simple question to ask is “Do you have a best friend at work?” Someone who – if you had a question as simple as “where’s the mail room?” – would provide you with directions. Research has shown that strong friendships can help make people more resilient and adaptable. When you have those social supports at work, you’re more likely to want to come to work, make a contribution, and enjoy it.

Q: As an organization, is there anything the College can do to help develop these social bonds and strengthen personal networks?

There’s a lot to be learned from “indigenous ways of knowing,” whether it’s from indigenous people here in Canada or from around the world.  These “ways of knowing” tend to put relationships first and foremost. They are based on the recognition that all of our relationships are foundational to health and well-being. This includes relations with ourselves, our friends, ancestors, and the land.

In the workplace, you can see it when people get together for a meeting or conversation. Many indigenous people begin by ceremonialising a deep and deliberate sharing about family. Relationships become the key building block for further conversations. When you develop deeper relationships, everything else become more effective. The community then becomes one large family that supports and learns from each other. I like to call it co-evolving.

Q: Having been in Winnipeg only six months, how has it been trying to become part of this community?

The Red River College community has been very welcoming, particularly people like Stephanie Fraser, Eddie Lau, Diane Ready and Dale Oughton, who have reached out and made me feel welcome. I’ve also met many Manitoba indigenous scholars and artists, some of whom are originally from the west coast.

Q: You’ve been facilitating a RRC Advanced Learning Group on Facebook that has been very active and has regular conversations going. How has that been in building community?

The group (join us here) has a high participation rate and represents staff from many areas. It gives people a chance to communicate as a community.  I’m hoping that as people become more trusting of communicating within the group, you’ll see more people sharing information, liking posts, and so on. The group is meant to engage people about advanced learning and share their ideas with the group. It’s mainly about having fun in an informal way. I encourage all RRC employees to join us.

Q: Given how busy you must be, what do you do to keep physically active?

Well, right now I’m trying to find a good tennis partner, as I’m a life-long tennis player. No luck yet. I’ve gone out and tried a spin class recently and want to play some badminton, but it’s been hard to get into a routine. I’m the kind of person who needs a buddy to get me going; it’s tough to do it alone.

Q: Some people will seek “creative” activities as part of their Wellness mix, such as writing, photography, acting, gardening or storytelling. I see from your communication on Facebook and Twitter that you’re an avid writer.

I write a regular column for the Okanagan Sunday (Note: You can find a collection of some of these essays in the book Global Citizen). The stories are often reflections about me, my family and my experiences growing up.

Writing is a key part of my identity and is process of self-reflection. You can’t be well if you don’t self-reflect. There’s quite a bit of research that shows that people who write regularly about their lives are more resilient and able to deal with challenges.

Q: Do you have other creative interests?

I’m very interested in art and music and frequently go to galleries. I also like to write music. Most people believe that you need certain natural talent or expertise to play an instrument, but I don’t believe that. I think anyone can make music. If you came up to me and wanted to play the bass, within 15 minutes I could show you how to play a few notes and we’d be making music.

I don’t think there’s any activity that a person can’t do. The difference between being an expert and a beginner comes down to practice and purpose.

Q: That’s an interesting view of creativity.

Well, creativity is something special. Our everyday lives are filled with creativity. The way we eat. The way we dress. How we work, no matter if we are neurosurgeons or welders or cleaners. Even the way we make “small talk” – these improvisations are highly creative acts that we do all the time.  Conversation can be a way of creative expression.

Q: It’s like all life is just like jazz.

Yes. It’s good to be aware of how life is full of creative opportunities. I’m a firm believer in “letting go”. More things can happen and more changes can occur when you’re able to let go of things and see things in a different way.  Sometimes we wonder, “Why is it so hard to change your life?” It’s because we’re all governed by conventions, boundaries and structures. It’s what sociologists call “normalizations”. The more you can become aware of your own normalizations, conventions, and boundaries, the more you can be open to new experiences.

One way of doing this is through travel, where you can see differences between cultures and realize how social norms are constructed.

Q: That’s interesting. The Culture Language Mentorship program at the College is one way that staff and students can become more aware of these norms, and form social bonds in the process.

Definitely. The important thing is to recognize that people are “co-mentors,” and that the learning goes both ways. In fact, we can learn more from international and indigenous students than they can learn from us. And that’s true in a cultural sense, but also in a business sense. When you meet someone, it’s good to learn about their home and what life is like there, so it can help us expand our own boundaries and our sense of who we are in the world.

Q: How do we create a wellness culture at RRC that involves all staff?

You need to have healthy structures and systems for that to work. This includes our governance and reporting structures. It comes down to leadership among all staff and people recognizing the autonomy and authority that they have to be leaders. I want to create a culture of “go ahead and do it.” People have to feel motivated to get involved and engaged, and not always feeling like you need more resources to make changes. There are many things that people can do and achieve within their current roles.

I also think that in order to be a “Learning Organization”, people need to have time to be part of it — to participate in cross-functional activities where it becomes, say, 5% to 10% of someone’s job to work cross-functionally. Currently, many of the most valuable people at the College are those who have the contacts and networks and experience working across the organization. They are the glue that keeps us together. This is true from executive management to administrative assistants — we must all work cross-functionally to create better for value for learners. All of us, no matter where we work, should be engaged in providing value to learners.

Q: To wrap things up, what are your views on Student Wellness?

I would love for students to say that they can see how the curriculum reflects mindfulness and the ability to be well. Sometimes we forget about the human element of the curriculum, and instead try to pack in as much information and applied skills as possible within a narrow time frame. And someone might ask, “How do we do that with a subject like Math? How do you embed wellness in that curriculum?” We can start by asking ourselves, “Why do some people like math and other don’t?” In understanding the struggles that people have, you might find better ways to teach and communicate with students, and develop teaching tools and approaches that support and embrace a community of learners.

If we step back and ask learners “What is your best class? Why is that?”, we can learn a lot about students and about effective learning and teaching. Instructors who build community in their classrooms tend to benefit from their relationship with students, and they tend to know implicitly what wellness is and how to build it into programs.

At the most basic level, by designing learning experiences that are both fun and relevant, especially at the start of a course, students will enjoy their learning and sustain their engagement.