EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was published in the Now-Leader on Oct. 6 in a special 16-page section focusing on SFU’s 20 years in Surrey. Click here to read the full e-edition.
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By Lauren Collins
Joy Johnson says there was ‘incredible foresight’ two decades ago when Simon Fraser University decided to make its mark in Surrey.
It was in 2002 that SFU opened its temporary campus at Central City Mall in a space formerly occupied by Tech BC. There were more than 230 new first-year students joining the 282 existing former Tech BC undergrads and 53 grads, according to sfu.ca. SFU moved into its current location in 2006.
“We knew that a lot of students coming to SFU were coming from south of the Fraser, and there was also recognition that in making this commitment we could work in partnership with the city and help to transform the city’s downtown core,” explained Johnson, who was named SFU’s president in 2020.
But there was some initial “controversy” in the decision to open in Whalley, she noted.
“There will always be people that resist change and what I’m particularly proud of is that the leadership of the day – and this would have been Michael Stevenson, the president of the time – saw the opportunity, understood the opportunity and really was able to bring the university along to seize the opportunity in Surrey.”
Johnson said it’s been a “game changer.”
“Absolutely there’s always been resistors to bold moves and to change, but again, I really give a lot of credit to the leaders of the day who really saw the opportunity and seized it.”
The last 20 years in the city core, now called City Centre, have been “transformational,” noted Johnson.
“It’s grown incredibly over time and become very vibrant. I think having a large university presence helped with that. It brings students, faculty and staff to campus,” she said.
“It is wonderful to see the city hall built and other infrastructure established to really create a thriving community. We’ve seen the campus, the SFU campus in Surrey, grow as well over time.
“So I think what we see is a totally revitalized area. It’s vibrant, dynamic and growing.”
Johnson said SFU’s partnerships with the City of Surrey, the Surrey school district and the Surrey Urban Indigenous Leadership Committee have proven to be vital to its success.
As for the future, Johnson said SFU has an “intention to continue to build our campus in Surrey.”
“We’ve got plans to expand.”
One of those areas, she said, is in medical education. It was during the 2020 provincial election campaign that the NDP announced that, if elected, they would build the province’s second medical school in Surrey.
Johnson said SFU Surrey is developing plans for it, thinking about how it can serve the the entire province, working with the Fraser Health Authority and “also with the First Nations Health Authority.”
In addition, SFU Surrey opened the recently announced agritech innovation centre, which Johnson has said will “directly improve the lives of people across the province by accelerating the research and development of new technologies in the agritech space – and ultimately creating stronger, more sustainable food systems in our region.”
Johnson added SFU Surrey’s quantum algorithms institute is also a “wonderful investment” in B.C.
Over the past 20 years, Surrey-based research funds awarded to its three major schools – Interactive Arts and Technology, Mechatronic Systems Engineering and Sustainable Energy Engineering – have exceeded $100 million.
But it’s some of the programs that were established at SFU’s Surrey campus over the years that Johnson’s sees as some of the campus’s highlights.
“They’re unique in Western Canada, or were unique when they were formed; our mechatronics systems and engineering program, established about 10 years ago, which has been outstanding and really making a difference,” said Johnson.
She said the sustainable energy system engineering program was also a “new innovative program purpose-built to really help us think through new technologies that can address energy systems and our climate emergency.”
And with the latter program came SFU Surrey’s campus expansion.
She said all of that has helped to position Surrey as “a leader.”
Johnson said it’s clear that universities have a “huge impact on the communities in which they’re located,” noting it attracts staff, faculty and students to come live and work in the area.
“I think in addition to that, we’re very mindful of thinking about where the jobs of tomorrow are going to be, thinking about what the needs of the city are going to be over time and ensuring that our education programming is in tune to that.”