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Igniting a Passion for Learning

Addressing a new group of students intent on becoming rehabilitation medicine professionals, Jim Vargo, '68 BA, '70 MEd, '72 PhD, shares with them a great regret in his life: the fact that he will never have the chance to play professional football. He leaves the thought hanging and then, deftly judging the timing, he throws out his punch line: "I'm just too old." Which brings laughs and smiles because the most obvious thing — the first thing you notice about Vargo — is that he is in a wheelchair.

But before long, as the students get to know him better, the wheelchair will recede into the background, and Vargo will himself become a paradigm for a lesson at the heart of his teaching: the notion that living with disability does not mean living with tragedy.

"My disability obviously affects me every day of my life," says Vargo. "But I don't think people who know me well think the disability is the most important thing about me. Mostly they know Jim Vargo who happens to be disabled, who happens to be a man, who happens to be a Canadian. My gender and my citizenship affect everything I do — as does my disability — but none of these define me. And that's what students need to learn. I use myself as an example, but that is the case for everybody with visible disabilities."

While he is too old for football (a game for which he has a genuine passion), at 51 years Vargo is in full stride as an educator. A professor of occupational therapy at the University of Alberta and an associate dean in the University's Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, he was recently named the 1994 Canadian Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. CASE — the acronym by which the Council is commonly known — is an international organization with its headquarters in Washington, D.C. It is dedicated to promoting the cause of higher education and providing training programs and support services for professionals working in advancement fields (alumni relations, fund raising, publications and public affairs) at universities and colleges in North America and around the world.

In honoring Vargo, CASE highlighted his extraordinary dedication to teaching and his ability to effectively integrate experiences into his teaching and research. Presentation of his award took place this past summer in Winnipeg in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education, which works in cooperation with CASE and has a mandate that is similar. Among those present to recognize Vargo's accomplishments was CASE president Peter Buchanan.

"Professor Vargo," said Buchanan, "is a role model not only because of his invigorating teaching methods, but also because of the inspirational example he sets every day for his students, colleagues, and the university community. Both current and former students say that his perspective and approach to teaching psychotherapy have taught them to treat patients in a holistic manner — tending to both their physical and emotional needs."

This year there were 41 nominees for the honor of Canadian Professor of the Year, and Vargo was introduced as the "overwhelming choice" of the selection committee. He is the first University of Alberta professor and second U of A graduate to win the award, which was established in 1986 with the sponsorship of the pharmaceutical firm Merck Frosst Canada Inc. (U of A alumnus Dante Lenardon, '50 BA, '52 BEd, a teacher of modern languages at King's College in London, Ontario, was the 1990 CASE Canadian Professor of the Year).

Back on the U of A campus, some weeks after the award presentation, Vargo smiles as he discusses the CASE honor, which brought with it a framed citation and a cheque for $5,000 from the sponsor. The smile results not only from Vargo's pleasure at the recognition but from his recollection of how imperfectly he saw his future during his later years of graduate school. At that time, to those who inquired about his plans for the future, he invariably replied, "I don't know what I'm going to do, but I know what I'm not going to do — and that's teach."

A passion for education came late to Vargo, who was left a quadriplegic when he fell from a tree and broke his neck at age 12. (Because his spinal cord wasn't completely severed, he is capable of a small range of motion in his right arm.) He completed Grades 7 through 9 at the Alberta Children's Hospital (then the Red Cross Crippled Children's Hospital) in Calgary, and began his high school studies by correspondence after being transferred to Edmonton's University Hospital, which had better rehabilitation facilities. It took him three years to complete grade 10.

"I was lazy," admits Vargo, who acknowledges the debt he owes to Adel Abougoush, Q.C., '68 BA, '71 LLB, who was his hospital roommate and remains a good friend. "Adel said that if we didn't do something we would be collecting our old age pensions before our high school graduation certificates," laughs Vargo.

In 1962, Vargo and Abougoush arranged for a move to the Good Samaritan Hospital on Edmonton's south side and started attending regular high school classes at Bonnie Doon High School. There, the principal, the late Henry Ward, '36 BA, '46 BEd, "opened his arms to us," recalls Vargo, and the two teenagers, both in wheelchairs, were among the first disabled students to be integrated into Edmonton's public schools.

Despite Ward's welcome, the experience of thrusting himself into a new environment was a traumatic one for Vargo, who remembers his first day at Bonnie Doon as the most terrifying experience of his life. He doesn't believe that he would have returned the following day if not for Abougoush's persuasiveness. But he did return and went on to complete high school. And along the way, he gained the courage to tackle university.

"If 1 wouldn't have had the experience of attending a high school, I definitely wouldn't have gone to university. And it was at university that I really came to terms with my disability," says Vargo.

He and Abougoush went on to the University of Alberta together, both enrolling in the Faculty of Arts. Abougoush progressed on to studies in the Faculty of Law, graduated and now practises law in Calgary. Vargo, who began his university studies with the dream of becoming a writer, later switched his major to psychology, which he saw as a more practical career alternative. After earning an honors BA in psychology —"I still didn't have any skills that were marketable," recalls Vargo — he enrolled in a master's program in educational psychology and continued on to earn a PhD in counselling psychology in 1972.

"I think it's fair to say that I really blossomed in graduate school," says Vargo. "I hated high school. Undergraduate university was okay, but it didn't excite me. But once I got into graduate school, that's when I really turned on to education. Before that time, I was getting education simply as a ticket to the job market. Once I hit graduate school, I started realizing learning could be fun just for learning's sake."

The 1994 Professor of the Year looks back on graduate school as "just a marvellous time." His memories of those years include the lively and companionable discussions he had with his fellow graduate students, the Zeitgeist of the times — "Remember now, we are talking about 1968 to 1972 and there are all kinds of interesting things going on..." — his interest in clinical work, and the support offered by his wife, Frances Vargo, '76 BSc(PT), '79 MEd, '83 PhD.

He and Fran, who is now the executive director of the Premier's Council on the Status of Persons with Disabilities, met when he was in his second year of Arts and she was a first-year physiotherapy student. They were married in 1968, and Vargo jokes that if not for Fran's gentle nudging he might still be a graduate student, he enjoyed it so much.

The road from graduate school to Vargo's recognition as Canadian Professor of the Year began in the Montreal suburb of Sainte-Anne de Bellevue, where he joined the faculty of John Abbott College in 1972. At first he regarded the teaching that went with the position as an unavoidable chore, the price to be paid for his clinical and research opportunities. But then an epiphany occurred. Vargo began to see teaching as something more than the drudgery of transferring information, more than the process of getting the facts contained in his notes into the notes — and possibly the minds — of his students. He explains the turnabout using a somewhat offbeat analogy: "I got turned on to students and teaching because I came to realize that the students were the barbecue briquettes, and my job was to ignite them. That was the best that I could do — and I don't mean that in the sense that that was the only thing I could do. Content is almost irrelevant if you can't ignite a passion for learning. When I realized that, I really got excited about teaching."

During the 1974-75 academic year, Vargo served as the chair of the psychology department at John Abbott, but he believed that he had something to offer beyond the college level. He got the opportunity to prove it when a position for someone capable of teaching clinical psychiatry, research design and statistics came open in the School of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta. Although not a psychiatrist, Vargo knew enough about abnormal psychology to handle the required course content on mental illness. He also had a strong background in research and statistics and was well suited to providing students in occupational therapy insight into the kinds of patients with whom they would be dealing.

He applied for the position, was hired, and moved back to Edmonton in 1975, just in time to be part of the School's transformation into the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine in 1976. Neither he nor the Faculty has any regrets about his career move. In a letter written in support of Vargo's nomination for CASE's Canadian Professor of the Year award, Martha Piper, the University of Alberta's vice-president research and a former dean of the Rehabilitation Medicine Faculty, praises Vargo's "extraordinary role as a teacher" and his ability to counsel and advise undergraduate students.

Writes Piper: "Students who have had the privilege of having Dr. Vargo as a professor are challenged to think, grow and excel. They are exposed to a caring individual, who has set extremely high standards of performance for himself, and who believes in the potential of each student, emerging and evolving as a result of advanced education and scholarship. It is common for students to express that their lives have changed as a result of the course they took from Dr. Vargo. As a result of his commitment to them as individuals and the value he personally places on teaching, students have acquired a heightened respect for the role of self examination in knowledge discovery."

For his part, Vargo expresses a love for teaching in the Rehabilitation Medicine Faculty. "Students in PT, OT and Speech have a lot of medical information to absorb. I absolutely love trying to get them keyed in to the importance of the interpersonal aspects of the therapist-client relationships. That's not to say that they don't get that in other courses from other profs — they do. But what really turns me on is to have them know the importance they will have as therapeutic instruments, how important their interactions with their clients will be — use the word clients, sometimes they use the term patients — and also how important families are in the adjustment process.

"Whenever somebody has a severe illness or disability, like a stroke for instance, it is not only the person with the stroke that has difficulties, the family is affected. And sometimes the family is affected more than the identified patient. Families have been in the past what I call the forgotten element in rehab. I think it is so important for everybody in the health team to make themselves available to families as much as they can. I really want students to hear that message."

In his teaching Vargo employs a set of notes, but he admits that they are pretty skimpy. "The notes are really just a guide to keep me on track," he says. "Somebody who tried to teach my course from my notes one year politely told me that they ‘weren't very helpful."'

When he enters the classroom, Vargo brings the entirety of his experience to bear. His notes only point the way. His discourse on the topics varies. "When I teach, what I say depends on my experiences — on what's happened that day or the day before, on what's happening in the news, on what I've read recently or a movie I've seen recently. I take my whole life experience — and I don't mean just what's happening to me, but what is happening in the world — and bring it to focus to say "this stuff I'm teaching is real, it's happening everyday."

"What I try to show is that learning is a lifelong process. The more you learn and the more you know, the better therapist you are going to be — even if what you're learning seems remote to your discipline at the time. I tell my students it's important to know about art and literature and all kinds of other things, as well as anatomy and physiology.

"I want them to know that life is interesting. It's fascinating. And the more absorbed by life, with life, and in life, they are, the better therapists they are going to be — the better people they will be, the better citizens, husbands, wives, whatever."

With that sentiment Vargo returns to his thoughts on being named the CASE Canadian Professor of the Year.

"I don't think that winning the award means that I do the best job in the classroom of anybody in Canada — I don't think that at all," he says. "But I am extremely honored by it because I think that it means that the selection committee thought that what I do has an impact on people's lives — students' lives. That, I think, is a privilege and the greatest compliment I can receive.

"If I have had a positive impact on students' lives, then I can ask for no more than that."

"Ten Things I've Learned About Teaching"

At the awards ceremony at which he was named the CASE Canadian Professor of the Year, Jim Vargo put forward 10 propositions he believes to be true about teaching.

– I think that good teaching is probably 40 per cent content and 60 per cent theatre. Content changes quickly; the information I teach in class today will not be the knowledge of tomorrow. Professionals in all disciplines must continue learning throughout their lives, or they will soon become obsolete. What I can do as a teacher, if I'm doing my job well, is to instill in students a passion for life-long learning. That's what I mean by "theatre."

– Whether we like it or not, what we are speaks to students much more loudly than what we say. Consequently, I make a conscious effort to try to get my students to view me first as a person, not as a professor, administrator, or researcher. I mention in my very first class with them that I use a wheelchair because, at age 12, I fell out of a tree and broke my neck and, as a result, am quadriplegic with an incomplete lesion between vertebrae C-3 and 4. I tell them that for two reasons. One, it tells them that I'm not sensitive about talking about my disability. Two, I tell them because I know that the minute I entered the room, these students diagnosed me in their minds anyway, so they might as well get it right!

– I try to instill in students an understanding that learning does not just come from experience; learning comes from what you do as a result of your experience. There are many people in this world who haven't learned this lesson.

– I believe that everybody probably needs two educations: one to teach us how to make a living, and one to teach us how to live.

– I believe that the best teachers increase the value of every student they teach.

– I believe that it is usually more rewarding to view our students not as receptacles to be filled, but as candles to be lit.

– I often mention, in passing, what I am reading. I do that to try to infuse in students a passion for reading, both for pleasure and for professional development. Books are the gentlest and most patient of teachers.

– Some classes inevitably contain at least one student who seems to be the human embodiment of a hemorrhoid. I've learned that when this happens verbal Preparation H is best administered outside the classroom. It is rarely advisable to confront a student in front of classmates.

– I believe that everyone, including students, wants respect just as much as you or I do.

– I believe that the smallest act or word of kindness is seldom given in vain. On a number of occasions former students have thanked me for something I had long forgotten. Little things do mean a lot to the recipients of our actions, so it is probably best if we try to make those little things positive ones. This sentiment is captured in the following verse, which appeared in the December 1991 issue of a magazine called Leadership.

You never know when someone may catch a dream from you.

You never know when a little word or something you may do

May open up the windows of a mind that seeks the light...

The way you lived may not matter at all,

But you never know, it might.

Published Winter 1994/95.

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