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On leading, following and remembering your purpose

Queen’s is reserving its honorary degrees in 2016 for alumni in celebration of the university’s 175th anniversary. Throughout fall convocation, the Gazette will profile the four honorary degree recipients and explore how Queen’s has impacted their life and career.

Andrew Feustel’s (PhD’95) career as a geophysicist has taken him from deep underground mines across North America to over 500 km above the earth as an astronaut servicing the Hubble Space Telescope.

On Nov. 16, he returned to Queen’s to accept an honorary doctorate of science at fall convocation.

[Feustel, Woolf & Leech]
Chancellor Jim Leech, Dr. Andrew Feustel and Principal Daniel Woolf, photographed ahead of the Nov. 16 convocation. (Photo Credit: Bernard Clark)

“While you’re at a university you don’t realize how unique and special that university can be,” says Dr. Feustel.  “Whether you realize it or not while you’re there, those experiences you have, the friends you meet, the colleagues you meet, the professionals you meet, all have a very significant impact on your life.”

In his address to graduates, Dr. Feustel described a training exercise he underwent after becoming an astronaut that exemplified for him the true values of leadership and perseverance, but also the importance of being an effective follower. During a cold weather survival exercise, he attempted to remove a tree stump from the spot the team had chosen as a campsite for the night. Hacking away at the stump for nearly an hour, he had made little progress and was beginning to tire.

Dr. Feustel explained how a simple comment from a subordinate in that trying moment – which could have easily served to demotivate – instead spurred him into taking action.

[Baker, Feustel and Sinclair]
Dr. Feustel (centre) speaks with fellow honorary degree recipients Rob Baker and Gord Sinclair. Drs. Baker and Sinclair received their honorary degrees during the spring 2016 convocation. (Photo Credit: Bernard Clark)

“When I reflect back on what I learned that day, there is one primary lesson about leadership and followership that became apparent,” he says. “A good leader is only as strong as his or her followers. My fellow astronauts knew that, as the leader, I felt a responsibility to clear that stump. He could also sense my fatigue and doubt. As a follower, he knew that the best way to support the leader was to motivate and touch on my obligation to the team. His words did just that.”

Speaking to the graduating class – most of whom were from nursing or other healthcare fields – Dr. Feustel highlighted the important role they will play in serving those in need. He reminded the graduates of their obligation – to themselves and their patients – to carry out their duties to the best of their ability, knowing that the reward for a job well-done “is simply having it done well.”

“You chose a career in healthcare, not for recognition, but because you truly believe it’s important to care for and improve the quality of life for others,” says Dr. Feustel. “So remember that.”

While his career may have taken him away from the city, the country and even off the planet itself, Dr. Feustel says that Queen’s and Kingston will always hold a special place in his life.

“Both of our children were born at Kingston General Hospital, so in a way this is like their home – this is where it all started for us,” he explains. “In fact, I can look back on the events that transpired here that are directly related to me being successful as an astronaut. So you want to continue to nurture those things. I think, as you get older you realize the importance of education and growing those interests and finding a way, some way, to inspire even one person at one of those institutions to go on and do great things because anything’s possible. This is where you can plant those seeds.”