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Cultivating curious minds

Alumnus backs next generation of liberal arts graduates

by Kathryn E Kinahan, BA'86, MLIS'93 | June 27, 2017

The School for Advanced Studies in the Arts & Humanities (SASAH) is a unique-to-Canada program that offers interdisciplinary study options, new language skills, experiential learning, access to new technologies and international travel opportunities under the same degree umbrella. The first cohort, some of whom are pictured here, graduated in 2017. SASAH director Joel Faflak is pictured in the forefront of the photo.

For Bob Boyda, BA’79, a curious mind plus a liberal arts degree — where he studied everything from actuarial science to Chaucer to statistics — proved to be a springboard to a successful career.

“My approach at Western was to pick up a lot of experience in a wide range of subject areas — all of which I would eventually use in some way, shape or form throughout the course of my career. I felt more confident about approaching new areas because I had some understanding or grounding in it.

“You learn how to learn. This is the beautiful part about taking the multi-disciplinary approach Western allowed me.”

Today, Boyda is Head of Global Asset Allocation and Senior Portfolio Manager for Manulife Asset Management in the United States. From his Boston office, his team manages global portfolios worth approximately $100 billion in assets. He was responsible for developing most of those capabilities and putting them into practice.

“The best folks I know, who are good at business, are not just good at reading balance sheets and income statements, but they’re good at understanding the logic and the argument an analyst or a company is putting forward. We have to have very good critical-thinking skills to determine whether the stories we’re hearing actually make sense,” he said.

All these skills form the mindset Western seeks to cultivate in students at the School for Advanced Studies in the Arts & Humanities (SASAH), a program Boyda supports personally and financially.

Some students from the first graduating cohort of SASAH, a program that only accepts approximately 25 applicants each year, are pictured here.

SASAH, a unique-to-Canada program, offers interdisciplinary study options, new language skills, experiential learning and interaction with new technologies, as well as international travel and exchange options — all under the same degree umbrella. Students are encouraged to become integrated into learning experiences across campus and in other departments within the faculty.

The program accepts approximately 25 students per year, with small cohorts making it possible to foster a tight-knit community. So far, this structure has proven to be a recipe for success.

Joel Faflak, SASAH Director, said, “Once you incorporate experiential learning and community-engaged learning, along with the academic and scholarly work we normally do in higher education, and you make that part of a four-year program, and you turn that over to the students and say, ‘show us what you can do with that scenario,’ the results are truly beyond anything I ever expected.”

In June 2017, the first SASAH cohort – a diverse group of of students who are moving on to jobs in business, the arts and not-for-profit organizations – graduated. Faflak likens the first cohort to pioneers. “They’ve truly built the school along with me and everybody else who’s been involved in it. Many of them want to come back. Some are continuing here to graduate school and will still be involved in the school at various levels. It’s wonderful to see the cross-generational mentoring that’s happening between cohorts.”

Boyda was one of the first on board to financially support SASAH and has remained an engaged advisor and advocate of the program.

“I want to see Western do well, but I’d really like to see this particular program catch on in iconic fashion. I know how important it is to have small class sizes and really engaged professors,” he said.

In this environment, Boyda believes, professors become genuine resources, invested in their students’ success and intent on guiding self-discovery.

According to Faflak, the importance of donor support for the program cannot be underestimated. He asserts that any and all gifts have a huge impact.

“When a student comes to me and says, ‘I want to undertake this research project,’ I can say to them, ‘Great, here’s a thousand dollars – run with it.’ The results of that are incredible because a thousand dollars to them is like a king’s ransom. And suddenly, they feel like they’re empowered to undertake the kind of research they want to.”

Furthermore, cultivating private-sector support provides the opportunity to develop relationships with alumni from diverse fields.

“The ability to connect with outside donors, the ability to take their vision of the outside world and start a dialogue with them about how their donation is enriching and empowering students can carry the message of what we’re doing here in higher education in the arts and humanities out to the broader public and that’s huge for us,” Faflak said.

Boyda supports SASAH as he has always recognized the intrinsic value of a liberal arts education, after ending up in a financial management role on the back of a degree in English and philosophy. That told him it was the liberal arts education that was the difference maker — he had the freedom to choose a wide variety of courses and feed his curiosity.

“Those are the things I admire about SASAH. I thought, ‘Yes, this is absolutely something you want — folks in the financial services business, or any business, who have these wonderful, curious minds and have been given the flexibility and freedom to go and pursue the things they want to pursue,’” he said.

Boyda has met SASAH students at various points over the last couple of years, most recently at a networking event in Toronto. He was impressed by their global view, moral compasses, curiosity and fearlessness. He believes employers prize these qualities.

He said, “The curious ones also have a relatively positive outlook about the world, what’s coming, how they’re going to change things. They see things they don’t like, they want to change them as opposed to simply resigning and walking away. Those are the people you want working for you.”

For more information, or to support SASAH, contact Jessica Schagerl, Alumni & Development Officer, Faculty of Arts & Humanities (519.661.2111 ext. 84897 or or visit

This article appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of Impact Western
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