A STUDENT'S BEST FRIEND
CBS program counsellor remembers past mentors
as he advises students for the future
BY ANDREW VOWLES
It's mid-afternoon in McNally House, and several administrative staffers have paused to watch the action as a photographer catches Prof. Fred Ramprashad reprising a role from his Guyana high school days, back when he was a one-time hot prospect for the West Indian cricket squad. It takes little prodding to encourage the academic assistant to the dean of the College of Biological Science to play up for the camera. "Stare me down," the photographer says, then clicks away as Ramprashad crouches over a makeshift wicket, wielding a toy bat and putting on his best batsman's face.
Ramprashad loves the camera - or vice versa. One framed photo in his corner office is a cover shot from the Guelph Alumnus, the so-called swimsuit edition that featured Ramprashad among a group hamming it up in beachwear. In another shot, he strides out at the head of a pack on his once-customary noon-hour run. In another photo taken for a recent U of G annual report, he's dressed rather more conservatively, but that suit jacket and tie hardly dim his jocular grin.
Still, Ramprashad might say that the most important photos around the office are not of him but of former students immortalized among their graduating classes in the B.Sc. biology program. Many of those faces are recognizable to Ramprashad from the lecture theatre. Many more he recalls from time spent in his corner office discussing their academic trials and triumphs.
"Your program counsellor in the College of Biological Science has the authority to grant exemptions from rules and regulations for medical, psychological and compassionate reasons," reads a statement on the Department of Zoology Web site, then as if to underline the point: "Departmental advisers can just commiserate with you - and tell you to go and see Prof. Ramprashad."
He now sees about 1,000 students a year, about one-third of the total number enrolled in the program and roughly twice the number that used to visit after he donned the counsellor's hat some 20 years ago. As program counsellor, Ramprashad tries to provide answers and options on issues that can profoundly affect a student's academic career.
It's a responsibility he takes seriously and with more than a dose of humility. During a recent convocation ceremony, a student's parents thanked him for helping their daughter. "I don't remember doing anything of significance," he says. "I just made her feel comfortable. All I did was act as a friend would. We tend to forget the effect we have on people."
Being a friend sometimes means knowing when to administer strong medicine, as in the case of students who ask to drop a failing course near the end of semester for no apparent good reason. "I say no," says Ramprashad. "They have to learn there's a consequence to their actions. My philosophy is that we learn about life with the freedom to make mistakes."
He's learned something about mistakes, as well as the effects of a few well-chosen words. There was that low point that turned instantly into a high point during his undergraduate years at the University of Western Ontario. Disconsolate over a poor mid-term mark, he happened to be passing the office of his professor, Helen Battle, who called him in. Rather than lambaste him over the exam, she congratulated him on a recent seminar he had delivered to the class. Calling Battle a "remarkable lady" who greatly influenced his subsequent career path and teaching methods, Ramprashad recalls that she said: "You are going to make an excellent teacher."
Heady words, perhaps even more so as they partly vindicated his decision to move to Canada. He had enrolled at Western intending to follow his first love - teaching - after leaving the University of London, where he'd been studying medicine. "For me to forsake a 'professional' career was a very difficult decision to make. As a result, I can appreciate students' uncertainty about their own career paths and the societal pressure to have a specific career path. You never know what the future will hold for you."
Ramprashad brought his biology degree to Guelph in 1967 to work as a lab instructor (he completed his master's here in 1971). He speaks glowingly of former CBS dean Keith Ronald, under whose tutelage Ramprashad became a lecturer and eventually an associate professor, and with whom he worked under a once-thriving seal research program.
"I've been extremely fortunate," says Ramprashad, who, even if he can't always summon the name of a former student, seems never to have forgotten the generosity of his own mentors. Recalling his speech during a reception for Ronald in the late 1980s, he says: "I suddenly realized that here was a person I was indebted to and I couldn't repay that person."
He expressed a similar sentiment during a speech at the retirement of Ronald's successor, Prof. Bruce Sells, in the late 1990s. Now University professor emeritus, Sells recalls being struck by Ramprashad's sometimes contradictory mix of volubility and understatement when he arrived at Guelph in 1983. "He was a marvellous asset to the dean's office, very helpful in aiding and advising students," says Sells.
Ramprashad is moved to stress his indebtedness to a list of deans - current and former - in both CBS and the College of Physical and Engineering Science. He also singles out his former CPES counterpart, Prof. Bob Winkel, now retired and living in Victoria. Together, they worked on the B.Sc. program committee and introduced several transition and retention management initiatives that appear commonplace today, but that were considered innovative during the early 1980s.
They were, for example, among the first academic advisers to push for college graduate surveys, which have since become an important part of the admissions handbook. Working with the Counselling and Student Resource Centre, they introduced a special "Success" course to help readmitted students who had been required to withdraw from their program to get back on track. Starting with 15 students, the course accommodated 150 students at its peak, 88 per cent of whom completed their degrees, compared with a mere handful previously. "We introduced the idea of proactive academic advising in terms of increasing retention," says Ramprashad. "We were very proud of that."
Between 1990 and 1994, Ramprashad also orchestrated a retention management pilot study to identify and help entering students at risk of dropping out or requiring more concentrated academic advising.
Outside McNally House, he has long been a fixture in the stands at varsity competition - and has served as faculty adviser to student athletes. Testament to that role is another memento on his office wall - an action photo signed with a thank-you note from human kinetics student and Canadian world champion aerialist skier Veronica Brenner. That role is a natural progression from his high school days, when he played nearly every sport going and where his enthusiasm made up for what he might occasionally have lacked in finesse.
Where he did excel was on the cricket pitch. His record-setting performance might have earned him a berth on the West Indies cricket squad. "But my father encouraged me to take the academic route," he says. "That was the best choice my father ever encouraged me to make."
Which brings us back to that miniature cricket bat. Close perusal of its surface reveals the scrawled signatures of the members of the Pakistani and West Indian squads who played in the 1987 World Cup Championship. The bat had been delivered by a former student, whose uncle - then manager of the West Indies team - remembered "Freddie" from their playing days. A fitting testament to his earlier athletic prowess and to the effect of the program counsellor on his students.