Alumnus and donor brings Augustana students to the stars

Brian Hesje's gift to build the Hesje Observatory looks to help students find the right questions.

Sydney Tancowny - 24 April 2019

Draft drawings of the Hesje Observatory
Draft drawings of the Hesje Observatory.

When constructing an observatory, unlike a typical building, you start in the middle. The first step is to dig deep-in order to keep the telescope in place, it must be cemented securely in a hole almost half as deep as the telescope is tall. Only after this has been done can the project continue, with the outer walls of the building constructed around the telescope. With construction beginning as soon as the Alberta ground has thawed, the Hesje Observatory hopes to open before the start of the upcoming academic year. Once completed, Augustana students will gaze towards the stars and, perhaps, see sights they've never seen before.

All of this has been made possible by alumnus Brian Hesje who has given $500,000 to fund the project. As Augustana's gaze turns to the stars, alumnus and project donor, Brian's focus remains on the students.

Following his time as a student at Augustana (then Camrose Lutheran College) and at the U of A in Edmonton, Brian began his professional career as a teacher-a career lasting two years before he began his MBA and transitioned into business. This transition, at first, may seem like a large redirection, but if you speak with Brian for even a short amount of time, you will quickly learn this was natural for him.

A portrait of Brian Hesje
Last year, alumnus Brian Hesje made a gift to Augustana Campus to fund the construction of the Hesje Observatory at the Augustana Miquelon Lake Research Station.

To Brian, education is the vehicle through which we can continue to improve both the world and ourselves. It crosses disciplines and has an important role in our lives even after we graduate: "If you're not constantly looking to improve yourself and if you're justifying your behaviour, that's not good enough." In his business career, Brian came to understand that it was what he knew that determined who he knew, and that his knowledge gained through experiences gave him opportunities he wouldn't have had otherwise.

However, despite his love and appreciation of education, Brian mentions his frustrations with his primary education in his book Thoughts on Thinking: "The school curriculum was based on questions that had only one right answer…I pursued a life of searching for the right answers, often without questioning if I was asking the right questions."

"It's the wrong way of teaching," said Brian.

Of course, this perception has done nothing to hold Brian back. Instead of accepting the way things are, Brian asks for ways he can change or improve them, "I've heard so often over my career that people aren't ready for the challenge," Brian said, "A lot of people get held back by that excuse." In line with his interest in challenging the notion of only looking for the right answers, Brian's support of the observatory will give students experiences where they can find and ask the right questions. "I want to help motivate young people to realize their potential, and I'm trying to find ways to help them do that."

And despite not having a personal interest in the field, Brian still sees opportunity among the stars-likely the same opportunity students will come to see once the observatory is completed. "Astronomy is a fascinating area that I never thought of the university, especially Augustana, having as part of their curriculum. Studying the stars has the potential to really broaden your thinking," said Brian.

When asked what he hopes for the observatory five years to a decade down the line, Brian's student focus remains secure: "I wouldn't think about what it can be as much as what people who have gone there have been able to achieve. Because the observatory can't do anything; it's a building. But it's the opportunity it gives."

With both the observatory and classroom space being added to the Augustana Miquelon Lake Research Station, these opportunities will extend not only to Augustana students but to all U of A students and learners of all ages. Building on Augustana's 3-11 calendar, Augustana's faculty will be able to offer new, in-depth 3-week courses for students, increase experiential learning opportunities, encourage senior-level projects and support Directed Studies research initiatives, all across the U of A. Additionally, Augustana's Department of Science, in partnership with Alberta Parks and the Battle River School Division, will be able to collaborate in the development of outreach programming for school groups, participants in adult education, tourists, parks enthusiasts and lifelong learners.

The Hesje Observatory will provide a place where students can ask questions they have not yet been able to ask. According to Brian, the right questions are out there, not just out beyond the stars, but within the students gazing up at them. But to find these questions, they first have to dig deep.