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Meet the new College Team: Barry Townshend, Director of Colleges

Barry at SummerfolkIn conversation with the Director of Colleges, Barry Townshend, introducing the newest position at Trent, which is a part of the new College team.

Trent is just as new to him as he is to the Trent community, and he is still learning. He compares Trent to a great library, and he is someone sitting outside, looking through the door. He feels that is where he is right now, still outside the door and can see only one sliver of what Trent is.

Talk about how your career pathway that brought you to Trent?

I went to the University of Guelph for a Bachelors of Arts degree, and got a Master’s of Social Work from the University of Toronto.

During my undergraduate I worked in a drop-in centre for street-involved youth. The idea was to get to young people before they ended up on the street.

I also worked in residence house that was the equivalent of a Don, and then for four years as a housing professional in residence. During my Master’s I did a placement in an intensive care unit and outpatient cancer clinic.

Social work is often times dealing with everything from family problems, to relationship problems, to money problems; anything with difficulties that people face. I went back to working at Guelph in a department called student life. I was specifically responsible for the transition program for undergraduate students, which connected a little bit more to my residence experience. Centre for new student was my specific portfolio. I was also doing one on one counseling therapy for a number of years. The theme that connected to all those different things is working with people who had difficulties in their lives.

Why did you want to work with people with difficulties in their life?

It relate to my own personal experience. I came out when I was 17, I was very depressed, there were other people dealing with my own mental health issues, dealing with my own identity. In the 90’s being queer was not easy, it’s not that it is easy for everybody now. But there were no television shows that dealt with gay people, no movies that had positive gay role models at that point. So there were a lot of really negative messages. I had a lot of internalized negative homophobic ideas and it was other people who supported me. I just became very interested in supporting other people who were struggling and that has always been a theme in what I do.

How will you bring your personal experience into your role as the Director of Colleges?

As the director of colleges, part of what I want to do is create a community where there is a strong safety network, so people who struggle have that support.  And also, I want to help people access education to be inspired because if you’re overcoming poverty, discrimination, or just any difficult life circumstances, education is often times the thing that helps you over come difficulties.

What does your typical workday look like?

I don’t have a typical workday, which is one of the reasons why I love my job. It is different every day. However, one of the big pieces of my job is going out and meeting and talking to lots of different people. And a substantial amount of committee work is also involved. A bit of a jack-of-all-trades, lots of planning, budget stuffs. In the world of student affairs, often times you have to be through what we call a full cycle. A cycle will be a year, because work changes depending on what is going on in that year. So basically, it is planning, relationship building, education, training workshops, networking, and a lot of dialogue. I talk all day long. It is a relationship job; I try to understand people and bring people together.

Its funny because I am an introvert and my natural inclination is to be quiet. I have been amazed since I started that I probably have talked more in the last three months than I did in a full year before.

Expand on the kind of person you are?

I am introvert who learned to be an extrovert. I am definitely a creative person, and I am a fairly intuitive and emotional person.

One dimension of my personality is that when I go into a room, I often get a read on it emotionally where people are at in a room, because I get a sense of what they are talking about. But then I am also a curious person, wanting to learn and explore. I am an educator to some degree. I like to do things in an unconventional way. I wear big earrings, and that is one of the signs of being unconventional. I do things a little bit differently from other people!

Why do you do things differently?

I want to be my own unique person. A little bit of it is that it is an expression for me of what it means to be a part of a queer community. Coming out for me, not everybody but for many people in the queer community, is about doing things a little bit differently from what is expected.

Once you start to diverge from what was originally laid out as the “normal” ways of what is expected, then you start to venture in to other possibilities. For instance, “how am I unique? And how do I embrace my uniqueness, strengthen that and take pride in my uniqueness?” It draws a little bit on my creativity, my values around social justice, and it sorts of blends in all together.

A little more about your uniqueness?

For people who don’t know me, I use the label gay, but for people who know me or understand the culture and what it means, I prefer the term queer because it’s a little bit more open. I have been fully out for 20 years. It is not everything I am but it is an important, ‘one piece’ of my life.

What can we expect from you and your new role?

You can expect so many things from me, but one of the ones that I am really passionate about is retention, because it is a social justice for me, and also a success of the university. One of the ideas I have is building a safety net that catches the people who are the most vulnerable in a community, which supports everybody. Because at some point, all of us are going to have bad times in our lives and that safety net will make the whole community stronger.

You will see me put a lot of emphasis on community and how do we help to hold on to the students who need us to hold on to.

Take home message?

There are many things and chapters of the colleges that have not yet been written, and we get to write them together in a community. The writing of those stories comes from the relationships that we build, the community that we have together, and the way that we come together.

For me this work, the colleges, the reason I come to this work and what I love about it, is that we get to write the stories about where the colleges are going to be in the future; stories of student experience, or stories of Alumni and faculty’s experiences and what the university is going to be. But that comes from dialogue. So I want people to know that I am open, I want to have a conversation, to meet people, to know how people think about the world and how to be in a relationship together.

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