Q & A: Mary Marshall Durrell

As the undergraduate student advisor in English and Film Studies retires after 30 years, some parting words of wisdom

Donna McKinnon - 13 June 2019

When Mary Marshall Durrell began working at the University of Alberta 30 years ago, she had no intention of making it her career.

Thankfully, for the several generations of students she has guided in her role as the Undergraduate Student Advisor in the Department of English and Film Studies, Mary stayed - and thrived.

"To literally thousands of students from across our institution and hundreds of instructors over 30 years, Mary has been the friendly face of our department, legendary for her patience, dedication, humour and superior support." - Bob Longworth, Assistant Chair (Administration)

Did you begin your UAlberta career in English and Film Studies?

"Yes. Isn't that weird? I grew up in Ardrossan and I have a BA in English from Bishop's University. At the time, I thought I'm not staying in Edmonton my whole life, so I went to Quebec for university. I learned to be appreciative of Edmonton, and I wanted to come back here to live. But when I started in English, I remember being introduced to someone in the general office who had been there for 28 years and in my head I'm thinking, who stays anywhere for that long? Apparently I do! Honestly, I love it here.

Is there anything you don't know?

Tons I don't know! People say to me that all this history is walking out of here when I retire, but I feel like I don't know that much. You absorb as you go.

There's that constant refrain - Just Ask Mary.

It's weird to be the person who people think knows things! I know a couple of things.

What do you love about your job?

It's a big department, with really nice, funny, smart people, and so it's never the same day twice, especially when it involves students. It's not a job that really ever gets stale.

My favourite moments are probably with my co-workers because that's who you spend the most time with, but I've had great student interactions over the years. Kristy Wuetherick [Senior Officer Student Programs and Services, Undergraduate Student Services] said at our last advisors meeting, I don't know if you remember but you were here when I was an English major! Honestly though, some of the shenanigans you get up with co-workers - that's the best!

Mary Marshall Durrell, the undergraduate student advisor in English and Film Studies, retires after 30 years

Bob Longworth, Katherine Binhammer and Mary Marshall Durrell

Have the types of questions students ask changed over 30 years?

Not as much as you'd imagine. It's still often their parents saying, but what kind of work will you get with an English degree? What I do think is interesting is that some of the more recent students are talking about the kind of work they'd like to do which didn't exist as work, when I started.

What's the biggest change you've witnessed over 30 years?

The technology changes and some things aren't as paper-involved as they used to be, but the same sorts of problems arise. The biggest change I think is that when I started here, there were maybe 76 continuing full-time faculty members, and now I think there is less than 40. Of those 40, some get pulled away, like Mike O'Driscoll, who is now the Vice-Dean, and Nat Hurley, the Director of the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies. We almost never get them back, but they are still counted as ours. So the biggest change is there are fewer people.

But more students?

I'm guessing that overall, there are more students, and class sizes have been edging up, so that changes it, but all these new emerging areas come up too and it would be so nice to hire into those areas but people diversify, teaching more than one kind of thing.

When the cuts came in 2012, we lost half of our support staff, so that was a big change, campus-wide. That's where I feel sorry for someone new coming in. I had all this time to ramp up, but they will have to dive in, head first!

The University of Alberta is in constant flux, which is why people appreciate you so much.

It's unusual now for someone to stay in the same position for so long, especially for the younger generation. I mean, I didn't even imagine that I would be here for 30 years!

What advice would you give to Craig Soars, the new undergraduate advisor?

What I always remind myself, even if I get asked something a lot of times, it's that person's first time. I can still remember myself as an undergrad, so my advice is to try to remember that for anybody - this is their first time asking that question.

What advice do you give to first year students?

Well, I just try to remind them that for their first year, where everything is in transition and you're in the pool with all the best from all the pools, don't be too hard on yourself. You'll find out what you're interested in and will do well in, so if that first year goes badly, I remind them that lots of very successful people had a very bad first year.

What's your favourite spot on campus?

I adore that pond outside of Humanities. I like the sound of the running water, and now that Naked Yoga Guy isn't hanging around it all the time, you can really enjoy it.

What are your plans for retirement?

My husband and I are going to PEI for the month of July. My sister and her husband have a cottage they're expanding, so we're going to help. I've talked to several people who say the first year sort of feels like a vacation, and I'm happy on vacation, so I'm good. I have a bunch of trips coming up, and I want to paint my house - and not get up to an alarm clock! That's my favourite part. Some of my siblings are already retired, and they say they're so busy they don't know how they ever got anything done while they were working. I'm not worried about being bored, but I am worried about this 'I'll be busier than I was' business!

What will you miss?

The social interaction. It's huge. You have all these really great people you can chat with, or get information from, or they come to you about something, and suddenly, it's gone. I am excited about it, but I'm also nervous. In my head I feel like I'm 12, so I don't know what business I have retiring!