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Two strokes and a sprawling campus couldn’t keep Gary Tam from getting his UBC degree - photo by Martin Dee
Two strokes and a sprawling campus couldn’t keep Gary Tam from getting his UBC degree - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 5 | May 7, 2009

Degree of determination

By Brian Lin

It's 14 years in the making, but when Gary Tam walks across the Chan Centre stage this May to pick up his Bachelor's degree, he’ll know that nothing – not even two strokes and a sprawling campus – could keep him from realizing his dream.

Tam first came to UBC straight out of high school in 1995. “I was actually a pretty bright student and did really well in high school,” Tam says. “UBC is the best university in the province – and one of the best in the world – so it was a no brainer choosing to come here.”

But his first stint at UBC was short-lived. Just two months into his freshman year studying engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science, Tam suffered a stroke. “There is no family history of heart disease and I wasn’t eating wrong, so it was a complete shock,” says Tam, who took a semester off but returned the following fall to the Faculty of Science.

His second stroke hit two years later, severely affecting his motor skills and forcing him to eventually quit school in 2001. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Tam volunteered at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, visiting elementary schools in the Lower Mainland and educating children about strokes.

“In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to come back and get my degree,” says Tam. “I was determined to do it even though I was out of school for a long time.”

In 2006, Tam enrolled in the Food, Nutrition and Health Program in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems (LFS). “I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to study,” says Tam. “In retrospect I’m glad I stuck with LFS because the people there really went the extra mile to help me complete my studies – and I learned so much about important issues facing our world today like food security, organic crops and food economics.”

UBC's sprawling campus presented a real challenge for Tam. Most of his classes were held in the faculty's home building about two kilometres south of the bus loop – approximately a 20-minute walk for able-bodied persons.

“I thought I knew the rigours of university but gosh was I wrong,” he says. “I had no idea how hard it would be to physically get to and from school.”

Tam credits the UBC's Birdcoop Fitness Centre for helping him meet the physical demands of getting to and from class. Exercises using his own body weight – chin-ups, push-ups and sit-ups, for example – have improved his mobility so he can ride public transit and get around assisted by canes.

Tam's exercise regimen has also made him a popular fixture at the home of the Thunderbird varsity teams. “Gary always has a smile on his face and he is very dedicated to his workouts and health,” says Laura Jeary, Manager of the Birdcoop. “He is someone we look forward to seeing each week and an inspiration for a lot of people to make the most of each day and whatever life throws your way.”

Jeary's admiration is mirrored by many who have come in contact with Tam, including Lynn Newman, LFS Assistant Dean, Students.

“I absolutely love Gary as the word ‘quit’ just isn’t in his vocabulary,” says Newman. “Despite the challenges that he faces, he never complains and just gets on with things. His perseverance leads me to believe that he's going to accomplish great things in his life.”

Tam, who hopes to pursue a career in business, says the congregation ceremony will be special to both him and his family. Tam's older brother graduated from the same faculty in 2000. “It feels good, you know, finally getting that degree that I’ve always been working towards,” says Tam. “My parents will definitely be there – they can’t wait to see me graduate. It's been a long time coming.”

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Last reviewed 11-May-2009

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