Grace Peng has been named as Chemainus Secondary School (CSS)’s recipient of the 2012 Governor General’s Academic Medal (GGAM).
Peng, a first-year engineering student at the University of Alberta (U of A) in Edmonton, said her parents first informed her of “an award” she’d received in late September.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, that’s nice, it’s a certificate or something,’” Peng said.
It wasn’t until she spoke with Sian Peterson, her former principal at CSS, in October that Peng realized she’d won a GGAM.
“I was blown away by it,” added Peng. “This is a whole different class of award we’re talking about.”
Peng, in turn, explained the significance of the award to her parents who “were bursting with pride” as a result.
Peng couldn’t recall her grade point average (GPA) from high school — GGAMs are awarded to one student at every secondary school in the country based on their cumulative GPA for grades 11 and 12 — but she admitted to being an “A-plus student” motivated by a longstanding, amicable rivalry with a fellow classmate.
“It was that friendly competition that really helped push me to attain the best of my academic ability,” Peng added.
Peng set her sights on an engineering degree from the U of A for several reasons.
Job prospects factored heavily into her decision.
“U of A is one of the premier schools in Western Canada for engineering,” said Peng. “There’s millions and millions of dollars coming from these companies for research, for building new buildings, for increasing the size of their libraries. I’m looking for an opportunity to get into the job market, and U of A is where I’ll find it.”
A former teacher of Peng’s played a pivotal role in her decision to attend the U of A, too.
“Mr. Henry was one of my most favourite professors ever,” Peng said.
Gord Henry, a former math teacher at CSS who now teaches at Cowichan High School, graduated from the U of A, Peng said.
Unlike the majority of people who eschew higher math, Henry made teaching it his métier.
“He really loved math in a world where people tried to stay away from math as far as possible,” said Peng. “You know, they try to distance themselves from inverse sin functions and curves and third derivatives. He embraced it wholeheartedly and he tried his best to find interactive ways to engage students. We made music videos, and we danced in the halls and we made posters and it was great.”
The defining factor influencing Peng’s decision to study at U of A, however, was her father’s ties to her current school.
“My dad took his master’s of electrical engineering at U of A,” Peng said, “and my dad’s always talking about his old school and the golden memories from his time there. That’s as clear a foot in the door as I could ever have.”
Peng’s father, Dale, grew up in Taiyuan, the capital of northern China’s Shanxi province. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1985 to attend the biophysics program at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. A year later, Dale said he approached his supervisor to express his interest in pursuing a master’s degree. His supervisor called an associate at the U of A “right in front of him” and Dale Peng was accepted on the spot. He applied for his visa, booked his flight and soon found himself in Edmonton.
Dale completed his master’s in 1987 and remained at the U of A to pursue a PhD in physics and digital communications, but a “life changing event” distracted him from his work and he left the program in 1990. He “gradually shifted into construction,” Dale said, and now oversees small-scale real-estate developments in Chemainus and Duncan.
Grace’s parents were “very, very excited” by the news of her award, Dale said, adding that “she won quite a few other awards, but this one was the highlight.”
A GGAM isn’t accompanied by a scholarship, Grace said, but tuition won’t be a concern of hers for her first two or three years of study; she’s received several awards from Chemainus institutions alongside a scholarship from the U of A itself.
“The generosity of the local donors who set aside these bursary and scholarship funds for us is amazing,” Peng added.
Peng plans to work for a pharmaceutical company for a few years once she’s completed a bachelor of chemical engineering.
“That’s actually what my uncle’s doing in the Netherlands right now,” she added.
Peng’s ambitions aren’t limited to synthesizing novel pharmaceutical compounds, however.
“This one’s going to leave a couple of people scratching their heads,” Peng said. “My dream job? To be a business lawyer.”
Peng said she hopes to pursue a law degree after spending a couple of years working as an engineer with her final goal being that of a mediator in dispute resolution.
In the interim, she’ll make the most of the cold, dark winters Prairie provinces are famous for.
“I’ve never been in an Edmonton winter before,” Peng said. “When it snows, it becomes almost blizzard-like, but it’s very beautiful. I love it.”
Peng has yet to receive her medal. Peterson said Peng will be awarded the medal in mid-February when she returns home for her spring reading break.