Generations positively collide.Sam Switzer + Erin Neal

Spring 2015 issue

Words by Stacey Smith
Photography by Roth & Ramberg

A single parent's story

Eight years ago, Erin Neal started a journey at Mount Royal University that will come full circle this June 2015 when she dons her convocation gown and crosses the stage.

Neal says she was raised in a tumultuous environment by parents who struggled with addiction demons.

“In many ways, it could have been worse. I grew up with a house, food and loving siblings, but it does not change the fact that my childhood was, frankly, difficult,” Neal says.

When she found herself pregnant at 17 years old, she vowed that she would create a better situation for her own son. The then teenager was already living on her own. Neal says she was forced to make some difficult decisions with no parental support. She struggled to escape an abusive relationship that took her through the system of shelters, aid agencies and public housing options.

Wanting more for her family, Neal, with the support of her maternal grandparents and her mentor, found the courage to begin a new stage in life at Mount Royal it is here she says she truly found a supportive community.

“Without the University community, I would not be where I am today,” she says.

While the smaller class sizes originally drew her to Mount Royal, it was discovering an area of study that captured her heart. She will graduate this spring with a Bachelor of Arts, History with a minor in Indigenous Studies.

Just a few years into her academic career, Neal found herself a single parent for the second time and she began to fear she would have to abandon her studies in favour of working full-time to support her children.

Opportunity came knocking in the form of the Sam and Betty Switzer Bursary for single parent students; Neal has three times been a recipient. This award provided her with the opportunity to complete three semesters of school, while still being a hands-on mom to her two young boys.

“I am so grateful for the hand up. I have found that most people are innately good, but it’s wonderful to meet someone like Sam, who truly gives back. I can see where my education has improved my communication skills and confidence to engage people at many different levels. I don’t know where I would be without it,” Neal says, adding that she vows to give back to her own community however she can.

“I can’t see myself not involved helping people. It could have easily been me using the services at the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre as opposed to working there.”

She also finds time to volunteer as a mentor to other students at Mount Royal.

“I have broken the cycle,” she says. “I do feel that you can rise above the situation that you are dealt with. You just have to do better for yourself and your family.”

Philanthropist, businessman and life-long learner

Sam Switzer, a business man, philanthropist and native Calgarian, recently reflected on his career and recognized that one of his greatest accomplishments was receiving his Honorary Degree from Mount Royal University, a Bachelor of Business Administration — Entrepreneurship.

Switzer says his formal education didn’t take him past Grade 9, but he believes that through hard work and his love of learning he was able to propel his successful career as a builder. Switzer contributed to the Calgary landscape by building everything from large-scale apartment buildings and hotels, to shopping malls.

“If I could pass anything along to the next generation, it would be my philosophy of ‘would’ve, should’ve, could’ve’,” Switzer says. “If you don’t take advantage of opportunities presented, you could miss out on something great.”

Switzer says he learned to read people, places and situations and see opportunities that others would easily dismiss. Whether it was selling ice as a child, delivering prescriptions as a teenager, retail sales, property management or construction, Switzer thrived on continuous learning and the challenge of new prospects.

He credits much of his success to his late wife Betty, who he lovingly describes as his mentor. His face radiates when he speaks about her.

“She changed my life,” he says. “I trusted her implicitly and she made me a better person.”

Switzer first met Betty when she worked the front counter at the YWCA. Even then, as a single mother herself, she was helping women get a new start on life. Switzer recruited Betty to work for him at one of his hotels. Mutual respect and admiration as work colleagues morphed into a deeper commitment and they married in 1981.

“Betty could see beyond just making money,” Switzer says. “She saw how we could make a difference.”

Wanting to share their good fortune, the Switzer family created the Sam and Betty Switzer Foundation in 2007. Switzer says both he and his wife believed that “it’s not how much you have but its how much you give back.” Since 2008, their foundation has helped over 87 students at Mount Royal change their lives and achieve their dreams.

Throughout his life, Switzer created a balance of giving not only monetarily, but also with time. A long-standing member of the Rotary Club, the Al Azhar Shriners, the Masonic Lodge and the Skäl International Travel Club, volunteering was a large focus of his efforts. He relinquished many of his volunteer positions but still sits as the Chairman of the Sam and Betty Switzer Foundation.

“I have seen the positive results and I get from giving back, it’s a great sense of satisfaction,” he says.

The Sam and Betty Switzer Foundation

Sam Switzer, along with his late wife Betty, created the Sam and Betty Switzer Foundation in 2007, an organization that supports education, social programs, medical research and the arts. The foundation has provided tuition-paying bursaries to single parents and emergency bursaries for Aboriginal students at Mount Royal University for seven years.

Doug Dirks + Jenny Howe

Words by Tierney Edmunds
Photography by Roth & Ramberg

Just as you’re hopping in the car at the end of the day to drive home from work or heading out to pick up the kids from school, these two Mount Royal University alumni are gearing up to start the workday as the hosts of CBC Calgary’s The Homestretch.

If you don’t recognize them by name, you may find Doug Dirks and Jenny Howe’s voices familiar. The two journalists deliver the news, as well as that ever-imperative rush-hour traffic report each weekday evening from 3-6 p.m. on Radio One 1010 AM.

Both Dirks and Howe are proud Mount Royal grads and each give back to the University annually through their time and talent as hosts of the Alumni Achievement Awards, Mount Royal’s annual celebration to recognize alumni and students who have made significant contributions to their community and achieved remarkable accomplishments.

Howe graduated in 2006 with a Broadcasting diploma, while Dirks set his sights on a Sport Management diploma, graduating in 1983. He went on to complete a Bachelor of Education at McGill University. Dirks is not only a Mount Royal grad (he took a semester of Broadcasting before switching to Mount Royal’s Sport Management program) but also a former employee. From 1985–1987, he worked in the Athletic Therapy department as assistant athletic director.

“Part of my job at Mount Royal was pitching story ideas about Cougar Athletics to the local sports reporters,” says Dirks. “It looked like broadcasting was a lot of fun, so when my wife took a job in Toronto, I took a one-year post graduate certificate program in radio journalism at Humber College.

I’m thrilled that MRU has evolved into one of the top teaching universities in the country, but still manages to maintain the friendly personality I fell in love with as a student more than three decades ago … I loved studying and working at Mount Royal. Hosting the Alumni Achievement Awards was the least I could do to support one of my favourite alma maters.

Doug Dirks, CBC Calgary, Radio One 1010 AM host of The Homestretch and Mount Royal alumnus

“I originally hoped to play in the NHL, but realized I might be better off talking about the NHL than actually playing in it.”

He started his broadcasting career in 1987 as a news and sports reporter at a small station in Newmarket, Ont. Dirks has been at CBC Calgary now for more than 20 years, not just on The Homestretch, but also as host of the local TV news as well as shows on CBC News Network.

Howe didn’t have any NHL dreams but, much like Dirks, she did take a roundabout way to her current broadcasting career. Before attending Mount Royal, she studied Zoology with a minor in Botany and Anthropology at the University of Alberta. After graduation she landed a job at a lab in Fort McMurray testing raw oil and oil products, but says she never felt it was the right fit.

“I love to talk and the laboratory environment didn’t really allow for that,” says Howe, with a laugh. “There was a rule that I wasn’t allowed to speak until 9:30 a.m. I’m a morning person and everyone else wasn’t. I’d walk in all chipper and my colleagues would sigh, ‘Ahh Jenny stop talking!’”

A close friend, who works in media, told her he thought broadcasting would be a perfect fit for her and recommended Mount Royal. She felt drawn to journalism and was accepted into the Broadcasting program in 2004.

“One of my instructors told me to apply for a position as a traffic reporter for CBC and I was hired,” she says. Howe has been reporting traffic for Calgarians on CBC ever since.

Both Howe and Dirks express their love for Mount Royal and credit the great experience they had as students as to why they continue to volunteer to host the Alumni Achievement Awards year after year. Each has hosted four times since 2010 — three times together and once each apart. They will once again host the 2015 awards.

“I’m thrilled that MRU has evolved into one of the top teaching universities in the country, but still manages to maintain the friendly personality I fell in love with as a student more than three decades ago,” says Dirks. “I loved studying and working at Mount Royal. Hosting the Alumni Achievement Awards was the least I could do to support one of my favourite alma maters.”

So what’s their favourite part about hosting the Alumni Achievement Awards?  Both agree — it’s the award winners.

“Last year I was so impressed with the Lifetime Distinguished Achievement Award winner Rick Smith. He’s so down-to-earth and the coolest guy. When I think my plate is full, I watch the Alumni Achievement Award winner videos and I see all they’re doing — it’s inspiring,” says Howe.  

Howe still feels connected to the University as an alumna.

“I love Mount Royal. Even when I walk into Mount Royal today, I see that there’s a great sense of community,” she says.

“I made some great lifelong friendships there. I really connected with my professors, there’s a personal atmosphere there.  

Dirks also volunteers at Mount Royal as the chair of the Broadcasting Advisory Committee.