The week before Mount Allison suspended on-campus classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Christiana MacDougall received an e-mail from the Grad Class Executive asking her to deliver the Class of 2020’s Last Lecture.
The Last Lecture is a recent Mount A tradition, an event during which graduates are recognized for their contributions to Mount Allison and the wider community. A favourite professor is chosen by the class to deliver its Last Lecture.
“I was so flattered, so touched, but I thought, ‘I can’t do that,’” says MacDougall, who teaches sociology and women’s and gender studies. “It was a lot of responsibility.”
And her task was about to get a whole lot harder. Within a week, the pandemic completely disrupted all aspects of student life, from classes to travel to jobs to Convocation. The in-person Last Lecture was cancelled and the event was held virtually instead.
“I felt even more pressure now — what do you say to this class? Not only has graduation been turned upside down, there was so much uncertainty about the future,” she says.
But it is hard to imagine a better person to deliver the Last Lecture in these circumstances. MacDougall is a Mount A alumna, married to an alumnus, the parent of an alumna and one (soon to be two) Mount Allison students, a social worker, and a counsellor, in addition to being a professor.
And she has some experience with life not always taking the direction you thought.
MacDougall started her education in science — graduating from Mount Allison in 1993 with a physics degree, but then went on to obtain a Bachelor and a Master of Social Work.
“It was kind of a funny path,” she says. “While I have a physics degree, I took a lot of sociology and psychology courses in third and fourth year because of a summer job I had with Children’s Aid. I was thinking I wanted to be a high school math or physics teacher, but then I found social work and I liked that better.”
She and her husband, physics professor David Fleming (’92), moved back to Sackville in 2002 when Fleming joined the Mount Allison faculty.
MacDougall was hired as a counsellor in the University’s Wellness Centre, then moved on to work at a mental health clinic in Amherst, NS, a position she held for 10 years.
“I’d always wanted to do my PhD, but it didn’t seem like it would work out for me. I was in the Maritimes, I had a fairly well-established career, but then I heard about a degree at Memorial University that was designed for working professionals,” she says.
MacDougall earned her PhD in social work at 45, while working full-time at the clinic and teaching part-time at Mount Allison.
Even then, she wasn’t expecting to become a full-time professor.
“When I went back to do my PhD, I didn’t have any intention of getting a teaching position, but then I got these opportunities and I loved teaching part-time,” she says. “I was super lucky and was brought on in a tenure track position for sociology and women’s and gender studies three years ago.”
MacDougall says her students welcome her 20 years of experience in the field.
“They appreciate I can talk about the application of things and the on-the-ground kind of work that many students want to do,” she says. “It’s not just that I have the experience, but that I can link it to the theory.”
MacDougall says the downside of becoming an academic later on in life is that her research program is really just getting started.
But her work is already getting noticed. MacDougall has completed a project looking at student mental health at Mount Allison and has explored cannabis use among students. Another key area of research is childbirth and reproductive health, looking at midwifery in New Brunswick in particular.
In the classroom, she aspires to leave her students with a better understanding of themselves and the world.
“I get to share that analysis that I think is missing in a lot of our individual-focused society. There is so much focus on individual agency and people making good and bad choices, but I have seen first-hand that people’s ability to make choices is so limited. We are able to talk about how that works and how we might change that going forward,” she says. “It’s the key to a more just future. At the end of the day we choose what we stand for and that is not a neutral choice. That is what I try to teach students.”
It is also some of what she tried to convey in her Last Lecture.
“The approach I’ve been trying to take with this whole COVID thing is the idea of radical acceptance,” she says. “It’s not about being positive — radical acceptance is when you can’t fix the problem, so you accept the new reality and you figure out how you get through it. I have no control over what is happening, but how can I show up the way I want to show up?”
Find out more about some of the projects Christiana MacDougall’s classes have undertaken: