Learning from the people around me
Written by Eleonora Mezzo
A brief introduction
A lot of people that will be reading this might not know you, so could you please introduce yourself?
“My name is Conor Topley and my pronouns are he/him. I was born and raised in North Vancouver. I now live in East Vancouver, in the unseated and stolen land of the xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil- Waututh) Nations. I feel so spoiled to live here, not only because it’s beautiful but also because I get to be surrounded by my family. Another important part of my identity is that I’m 11th generation French-Canadian, and come from Australian immigrants. I think having people who grew up different lives allowed me to enjoy and see Canada through different lenses.
My work is very connected to my studies, which I talk about in the COMM 202 course I teach. I studied, and now teach, business at the Sauder School of Business. However, what I am doing with what I know is not the traditional path, as most of my peers are out working at different companies, starting their own businesses, etc. I do some consulting on the side, which some of my friends do as well. I am also a teacher in Sauder. I used to teach the book ends of the undergraduate program (Intro to Business and a fourth-year strategy class), but I now teach COMM 101 Intro to Business as well as COMM 202 Career Fundamentals, which focuses of where you want to go in life and how to get there. Apart from this job, I am a facilitator at a company called The Corker Collective, where we do everything from management training to headhunting and recruiting.
Other than that, I am a helicopter parent to my dog and I am married to my husband Michael, who I love dearly.”
You mentioned you studied at the Sauder School of Business. I would love to hear how you would describe that time at university. For example, how different was it from the current Sauder you know? And were there any challenges you had to overcome as a student?
“Sauder was both different and the same. I joined Sauder in 2004 as an undergraduate student and the culture was somewhat similar, at it consisted of very ambitious people, all in different ways. Ambitious because they want to make a lot of money, save the world, or start their own business. People come to Sauder with drive, and because of this culture, you might have felt that you were an A-student in high school and start feeling discouraged after you come here. Some students might also develop imposter syndrome because they think everyone is at a certain level they cannot reach. On the contrary, I believe that we are all at the same level, and you are just in your own lane. I think that culture frustration happened when I was there too. Although I might be biased because I’m an instructor now, I feel like the culture at Sauder felt much more lighthearted and fun when I was a student. I might be saying this because I am very nostalgic of the school I thought it was, but I get the impression that everyone is very serious, a little too serious now.”
Yes, I totally agree. I don’t know what it was like when you attended Sauder obviously, but as a student, I can say there is this overall mindset of ‘I need to get this done by first year, this by second year, and so on’. At the end of the day, we are still students so I tell myself that I still have time.
“That was definitely similar to my experience, but I still think we had more fun. Overall, I’d say the school (Sauder) was a good place to be, where the faculty was well respected, I enjoyed my classes –not every class, as we all had one or too we didn’t like. I met a really good group of people there who were keen to start new things. For example, during my undergrad, two of my closest mentors started JDC West. I was in second year at the time, and they handed me the reins along with another coach to take it on the next year, which meant I was a third-year student running JDC West as it was being evolved. When I think of the Sauder culture, there are a lot of new things being created that are still around today. I look back at these things and think ‘Wow this was really something that built a legacy and is now enjoyed by hundreds of students across Canada’. Overall, I loved the culture at Sauder and I got highly involved, which is partly why I feel like I have a nostalgic and beloved appreciation for this school. I met some faculty members who became my mentors, and that are now my colleagues. I got involved by saying ‘yes’ to things that were fun, allowing me to grow as a person and meet energetic people.
As for challenges, I can share two. One was a challenge we all faced, which is the struggle of figuring out where we want to go, as well as imposter syndrome. There are things I’m really good at and things where I fall short and, because I was trying to be great, I focused on trying to fix what I was not good at. Looking back, I think that’s why I initially went into Accounting, pushed by this mentality that I was a double-edge sward: I knew people and Marketing, but I wanted to have analytical and quantitative skills. I then walked into Accounting class and I hated it, so it wasn’t until I accepted what I wanted that I found my place. I remember going to Marketing classes in 3rd year and thinking ‘Where the hell have you all been?’, as I though those were my people. This extends to the other challenge I had, which is that I was in the closet at the time, as I didn’t come out until I finished the undergraduate program at 24. That was an internal challenge that no one saw. I was in the closet and I didn’t share it with anyone so, when I look back, I get a little emotional because I think about how alone that person deep inside was. Everyone in undergrad puts on different masks and faces but this one was always on, no one was ever going to see it. In other words, the big challenge is that I didn’t see anyone like me. There was a queer group of activists on campus but I honestly wanted someone who I could just go out, have a drink, and hang out with. I also grew up in the Catholic Church which had a big influence in my coming out process, as well as many other factors.”
Was there any specific pivotal moment or person that gave you the motivation to share your real identity and ‘take off the mask’? For example, was there someone who helped you express who you really were by making you feel comfortable enough to share?
“It wasn’t a person in particular but rather what was going on at the time. I had had a couple girlfriends during undergrad, two of whom I am still really close with. I had just moved out of my apartment and finished my undergrad, which meant it was time for a fresh start. I didn’t want to start this new phase of my life by not living with integrity. I moved to this new apartment with a friend. We didn’t know each other that well but we later became closer. A few weeks after moving in we had a party on our rooftop and my friends were encouraging me to go out and meet new people, since it had been a few months since I had broken up with my ex-girlfriend. I said ‘Nah, I am not interested, I am gay’. They simply replied by saying ‘Then you need to hook up with a guy!’. I was in a new phase in life, in a good place. Fortunately, my friends were really supportive and immediately cool with it. Many of them were Sauder students, which says a lot, and which led me to shift my perspective. I thought ‘I can’t be myself here at the school’ when everyone was so great. But in some cases, it still feels like you can’t be too loud and proud.”
I think it’s great that you eventually felt comfortable enough to share it. I already heard when some friends came out and found that their friends were actually very supportive. This shows how important having a great support system is, especially at this age.
“Yes, and let’s acknowledge that that’s not the same for everybody, as it depends on where you are from and many other factors. In some places it’s still criminal. It’s an immense amount of privilege that all burden was just on me, and not on others.”
…and that it is not going to impact your future as much as it will in other parts of the world.
“I agree. In my case, it wasn’t going to negatively impact it, but it didn’t change the fact that I still wasn’t out of the closet in my first job. While I was there, I never came out to the people at work until the very end because I thought it didn’t really feel like the culture. This is why I think I came out at different times to different people. We are never done coming out really.”
True. I come from Italy and what I can say is that I am so happy to see that here in Vancouver there’s such a different mindset, which can be seen in the small things. For example, I remember in first year of university I was surprised that professors and students introduced themselves by mentioning name and pronouns. This would never happen in Italy, as many people haven’t really gotten to understand the point of asking ‘What are your pronouns?’. I think meeting people that have stories to share and identify as different things has been a great opportunity for me to grow and learn more about the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Don’t get me wrong, there are obviously still people in Italy who want to come out, but society gives them a harder time. This is why I think it’s so important to share your story!
Because of your growth as a person and as a student, what values did you develop before, during, and after undergrad? Is there any specific value that guides you in your life and in your work?
“I feel like values are sometimes too esoteric so, instead of telling you about my values, I can tell you about what I value. I value my family and friends first and foremost. If I could get rid of everything, but still have my brother, my sister, my parents, my husband, and my dog, I would be happy. I value fun as well, as life is often times too serious. I want to have fun because we are here for such a short time. I am 36 and, in my heart, I still feel like I’m 25. That’s why classes might be crappy sometimes but I try to make them fun for my students.
When it comes to my work, I value freedom and collaboration. Through this job, I have the freedom to play, try different things, and lean into my strengths. I also get to work with a lot of people, such as my 17 TAs across two classes and my teaching team. I am in a place where I have this nice bit of collaboration also at the Career Center.”
We already talked about how we can make it easier for our friends to come out and how to show support during this process. However, I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to create a supportive environment. With this in mind, is there anything which you believe universities, schools, and workplaces could do to create a safe space for people who are in the process of coming out, as well as those who just want to feel accepted? In other words, what do you wish you had or that was different when you were at university?
“I would nudge the university to go beyond resources, as they already offer counseling and information. What people need is connection. That’s why I started the pizza lunch (a recurring event where students can get free pizza and just get to know each other, share experiences, etc.). People just want a place to gather and be around each other. There’s an abundance of information but all we need is connection. A valuable way of allocating resources would be for universities to actively look for projects and people who would want to create those, and put funds toward them. I know our business school (Sauder School of Business) is eager for it and they are also the right ones to do it. I think what it needs is people like yourself and other students. I am a big believer in students who take the lead, as is always better this way. I look back at all the innovation that was happening in my undergrad and all I can say is ‘Grab the reins and make it happen’. Therefore, I think the school could do a better job at saying ‘Hey, we have the money available if you want to start programs, projects, or events that allow our students to feel more included’. Similarly, what I want to switch the conversation to at the pizza lunch is ‘What do you all want to do?’, ‘Who wants to take charge?’. The most important thing is that it doesn’t have to be complicated.”
I remember it was great! There were so many people at the pizza lunch who were from other parts of the world. Some of them had just come to Canada and could barely speak English. I empathized with them, as I have been there and I know how hard it is to adapt to a new environment and language.
“And that can remind you not only of how far you’ve come, but also how great Vancouver is. I often take for granted where we are at in this city, and in most of Canada. There are obviously still some parts of the country that are not open-minded but, overall, I think we have come really far. I see students who say ‘I’ve just come here for my Master’s and now I’m living my fantasy’. Slay queen!”
I agree, but I haven’t really grown up with that. I personally look at where I’ve come and think ‘Wow, I made it’, and then see the people that surround me here who confirm that point. Out of all the places I’ve lived in, Vancouver has shown to be the most welcoming and inclusive place.
“And we are still not perfect! But guess what… No one is going to be perfect. Perfection is just not a useful metric. What we just need to be is better than what we were before.”
"You learn so much more from someone who’s different from you than from someone who is the same."
Do you think friends could do more to support and promote inclusion?
“I think inclusion works when everyone is being included and it doesn’t mean that you do the same thing and say ‘everyone can participate in this event’. For me, it’s a matter of feeling involved and engaged in something. ‘What are the things we can focus on that make everyone feel included?’ I don’t think a lot needs to shift, I think it’s more a matter of reaching out. It’s in the simple things. For example, when I shared the poster (of the pizza lunch event), a bunch of other clubs shared it. Even if it’s a simple action, it got the word out, which is good.
When it comes to friends, I believe there are some really baseline things someone can do. For example, be mindful of language, as there are still people who use derogatory terms. Many times, shallow-end-of-the-pool conversations happen, and people should be able to speak up when they think a conversation is inappropriate. I also understand no one wants to be the villain, but there are subtle ways to nudge and play. I usually lean into teasing. However, the biggest thing, in my opinion, is start inviting people who are different from you. You learn so much more from someone who’s different from you than from someone who is the same. One of the things I find beautiful about my company now is that it put me into the most diverse place I have ever been. I grew up in North Vancouver, which felt like a bubble, and then I went to UBC Sauder, and that was another bubble. When coming out, I was able to meet people from all these different walks of life. Since Vancouver is so accepting, people come here from all over the world. Because of that, I met people who grew up below the poverty line, as well as in so many other situations. You just need to put yourself in situations where you can learn more. That’s what inclusion to me looks like. And through inclusion, you get to expand your perspective.”
Exactly, at the end of the day it’s an active choice. We all just need to put more effort in it. I’m glad I’m in a place where I can do that as, here at university, I have the opportunity to learn from so many people.
"You just need to put yourself in situations where you can learn more. That’s what inclusion to me looks like. And through inclusion, you get to expand your perspective."
As a professor, you put a lot of effort into ensuring every student feels included. I remember when taking COMM 202, we were able to hear about your story and journey which brought you to Sauder. This definitely contributed to an inclusive and less intimidating class environment. By listening to your story, both me and other students were able to get to know you as a professor but, most importantly, as a human being. Do you think other professors could also follow that same example?
“I don’t think it’s only on the professor’s shoulders. I realized that as a position of authority and as instructors they set the tone and culture for the school to a degree. So many people contribute to it, but the biggest contingent of people who are responsible for the culture of the school is students. It’s the overwhelming majority. This is why, before I talk about professors being vulnerable and sharing more, students should start first.
When it comes to professors, I acknowledge there are so many different approaches to teaching. Many folks who end up teaching at university level replicate what other instructors did before, rather than asking ‘What does research tell us about how to make classrooms more dynamic?’, or ‘How to make assignments achieve learning objectives?’. For a professor who has taught for 10 years, the nudge to change would be very difficult. There are many approaches to teaching and, in my opinion, there are some that are better than others. I come from a school of thought that is more focused on developing and nurturing students. My role in the room is a facilitator, whereas other instructors who go really deep into their subject and research solely focus on transmitting information. This means that they don’t see their role in the classroom as a way of sharing themselves, it’s more about sharing their knowledge. Students might feel less emotionally connected to the professor and the content. However, hopefully through that transmission they are sharing more deep insights that I am.
Personally, I think people learn more easily when there’s a relationship to the information that the student, myself, and the overall classroom environment create. This also motivates students to do work outside the classroom. In the end, I think everyone wins with being more vulnerable. Brené Brown has done research based on that and her teaching really resonates with me, so does Adam Grant’s. There’s a lot to be said around the value of people in leadership positions being more vulnerable and sharing more about themselves. It increases relatability and it nudges people to say that it’s okay for them to do the same. That creates a better working environment for people to perform at their best.”
I think both for students and professors, you can see the different personalities in the things that we do. I have personally felt that when a professor puts more effort into building a relationship based on mutual trust and vulnerability with the students, I tend to learn more and do better in the class.
What do you wish your younger self had known about life and career? Do you believe your Sauder student-self would be proud of who you have become?
“I would tell myself to trust people but only to a certain extent. My instinct around the goodness in people has predominantly been true. I also wish I trusted my guts more, as I feel like my instincts are now correct. I also wish I had known that the work doesn’t stop after graduation, but it just changes. Life gets more busy or complicated and you need to learn to take care of yourself first in order to deal with everything else. Although I have always understood this concept intellectually, I have learned to apply that to my life over time. The older I get, the truer it becomes. If you’re not filling your own tank, you’ll end up being depleted for other people. It comes down to the most basic things. For all of us is sleeping, eating and exercising, but for many of us is other things too, around human connections and being in nature. When you are as young as you are right now, in your 20s, there’s a shift in what you are physically able to take and sustain in terms of all-nighters, and all this other stuff. You need to take care of yourself because no one else can do that.
Would I be proud of myself? Yes! I went through a challenge that a lot of people face. We attach our identity to our option or major, and then when we go into our careers, we attach our identities to our job. We tend to think that life is good if our work is good, if we get paid enough, or that life will be good when we get paid enough. When you are very clear about the stuff that matters most to you, and not about the representation of it -whether it’s status or whatever you want it to be- then you are happy. That is why I think I would be proud of how far I’ve come. I know I am doing work that fills my tank and there were times I said ‘yes’ to things for a different reason and it didn’t work out. When I like my job, the work flows and I am really good at it, but there were other situations where, either for prestige or money, I did things and it was just not worth it in the end.”
I think it’s so important to do what you like, which is something I have realized only now, in my third year of university. Most importantly, I want to work in a field that I am passionate about, and that vision could be different for every single student I have classes with. In the first two years, I had so many courses and requirements that forced me to compare myself to other students who, for example, want to go into investment banking, which is the last thing I want to do with my life. My university life just got easier once I realized that the definition of success looks different to everyone. For example, I care a lot about this blog and storytelling, which is why I actively decided to invest more time in working on this project.
"You can take life seriously without taking yourself seriously."
To finish off, is there anything you would like to say or advice you would want to give to anyone is my position or who is currently struggling to figure out what to do with their career and life?
“I’ll quote Christopher Nolan in Heath Ledger’s Joker: “Why so serious?”. You can take life seriously without taking yourself seriously. When you bring a sense of play and fun to figuring out your identity and your career, you’re able to say ‘This isn’t that fun, I want to do something else. It’s not a big deal.’ But if you take yourself too seriously, you’re going to have a crisis, because it’s not perfect and it’s not what you wanted it to be. I think there’s an efficient strategy in taking yourself less seriously. And this applied to both your identity, by kissing someone you didn’t expect to kiss (with consent :), and your career path, by finding a position in an organization that you didn’t even think of before but that you end up loving.”
I think that’s great also just for being resilient. It’s always good to take the best out of every situation, even a bad one.
“Yes, and I think that starts by having fun. It doesn’t mean you have to lose, but if you focus on fun, then you’re going to be able to say ‘Whoopps, that sucked’, and start again.”
Another special thanks to Professor Conor Topley for taking the time for this interview.