Know Thyself

How an Augustana alumnus came to understand himself, and how he is helping others do the same.

Sydney Tancowny - 18 December 2020

After a 21-year career working in the bar and restaurant business, Jim Chu has transitioned to working in real estate as part of his family’s business, located in the home where he grew up. Shortly after he came onto the Zoom call, Jim showed the view outside his window. He’s in his childhood bedroom—now used as an office—in the East Village of New York City, and he points out the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the luxury towers of Manhattan. The city stretches for hundreds of city blocks. But when he was growing up, he never strayed too far. 

“I spent more of my time in a smaller geographical radius than anyone else I’ve met,” Jim said through the screen. “I was born behind my high school, which was 10 blocks away from our apartment, and between that was my father’s first business. I went to school across the street, and the grocery store was around the corner; all within a half mile radius. 

Which is perhaps why studying at Augustana—then Camrose Lutheran College—was at first such a culture shock for him. “I honestly didn't have the experience to understand what I was looking at, this small college in this remote place,” said Jim. “It seemed at first to be very solemn.” However, it would end up being his fellow students that would change this perception. From squishing behind the seats of his friend’s two-seater convertible to go for haircuts downtown to the mayhem of playing shinny on Mirror Lake, Jim remembers his time on campus and the connections he made fondly.

This includes his fast friend that he met on the first-year floor in residence—Robert Sherwood. Unlike Jim who grew up in a sprawling metropolis in a separate country, Robert wasn’t too far from home; he grew up on a farm just over an hour outside Camrose. “Bob really shared his experiences from growing up in Winfield, which helped me understand where I was,” Jim said.

Just as Jim came to learn about his new setting, so too did he learn about himself. As he had gone to Augustana to study psychology, he expected that he would pursue a career directly related to his degree. However, what he didn’t expect to find was an appreciation for the arts.

“We had some great instruction that went from fencing to clown work to improv and Shakespeare out of a box, and that really carried through when I came back to New York,” said Jim. After his time at Augustana, Jim opened up his first bar, which would end up connecting him to a wide range of opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise. In one such circumstance, he lent his space to the School of Visual Arts to host a symposium, and through this one event Jim was able to meet art directors, entrepreneurs and the layout editor of the New York Times. In addition to his work at his bars and restaurants, Jim still made time to study at the Upright Citizens Brigade and the Atlantic Theatre Company Acting School. Throughout his career, Jim would often audition and perform in roles and would also come to produce some films of his own. 

“My ability to appreciate and extend myself into those spaces was directly related to my education at Augustana,” Jim said. In particular, he remembers studying films like Top Gun and being amazed at just how much analysis could be applied to pop culture—which then suggested that the same analysis and work could be applied to most things. “I feel like I had license to be an autodidact and to be interdisciplinary. I’ve never had the security of a single job, but I’ve also never had the restrictions.” 

Jim has a love of his education; nevertheless, he wishes more diverse experiences were shared with prospective students. Too often does Jim feel post-secondary education is shown to have one outcome and to be the only answer when his education was instead what set him on his path towards self-actualization—an opportunity to learn about himself and better understand his own interests and how they aren’t confined to one category. “The importance of education really is a response to the Socratic question, it’s the 'know thyself',” said Jim. “I think ‘know thyself’ is a journey down a long road, but far too many people either don’t ask themselves that question or don’t have the tools to answer that question honestly.”

For Jim, it was the critical thinking skills and growth mindset that was fostered at Augustana that helped him answer this question, and which he believes can help others, as well.

This belief of people finding their own way through their education is tied to his admiration of his friend Robert. “His story of coming from the hinterlands, west of Wetaskiwin, and the stories that he shared with me made me look at the world in a way I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to without coming to Augustana and meeting him.”

“He died right after school,” Jim said. “I really felt called to make something permanent as I feel, in many ways, that’s how we live on.” 

Six years after Jim graduated, he reached out to the campus to establish an award in memory of his friend. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the Robert Sherwood Memorial Scholarship was designed to go towards a student like Robert who comes from rural Alberta, to support their stories and provide them with financial assistance on their path to understand themselves.

“It often feels like a faraway thing, when you receive funding from an award. But it’s always someone like you who wanted to do something to remember someone,” Jim said. “To think, after four years I would be so connected with this person who’s sitting across the room from me that I would want them remembered forever.”

Now endowed and supported by his planned gift, the Robert Sherwood Memorial Award will go on in perpetuity, supporting an education where two individuals from vastly different backgrounds can become fast friends while learning about themselves in the process.

This piece originally appeared in the CIRCLE 2020 Alumni Magazine.