Shawnigan Young Alumni Interview: Owen Cumming '18
Owen Cumming '08 (Duxbury) caught up with Rhodri Samuel and Harriet Klumper '09 (Renfrew) as part of an ongoing series featuring the stories that make up the legacy of Shawnigan alumni. As our monthly Young Alumni feature, Owen shared his post-Shawnigan journey with us and how he found his way to Montreal, where he studies Political Science at McGill University and was recently elected co-president of the McGill University Rugby Football Club.
Upon hearing that their 2020 season would be cancelled due to COVID-19, Cumming and the team leadership decided to devote their energy to raising funds for good causes. They ended up raising $12,000 for multiple charities in addition to working directly with on-campus groups to support those in-need. Owen's leadership was featured in a McGill Athletics article.
HK: What is your favourite memory from Shawnigan?
OC: The best part about Shawnigan is all the memorable moments. Good or bad, they were all important. It sounds ridiculous because I was only in high school, but I felt very lost when I was headed to Shawnigan. When I got there, there were so many moments, negative or positive, that helped me out.
A cheesy one that I always think about is running out for the First XV for the first time. I worked really hard through my Grade 9, 10, and 11 year, and that was a goal that always sat in my head. I remember the day I got on the team sheet, that was really special. Running out of the tunnel, people were clapping, the school watching: that will definitely be a moment I will keep for a long time.
RS: Are you still playing scrum-half?
OC: Still playing scrum-half. It’s a born-into and die-with position.
HK: It’s so special, those moments where it feels like the culmination of everything you worked for. I was in the musical, and I remember the moment the curtain lifts up and you hear that first musical cue. You work so hard and do so much, then finally that curtain goes up.
OC: I think that’s what is unique about Shawnigan compared to other schools. I never saw myself going to boarding school, and I think when you’re away from home and you’re in an environment like Shawnigan, those goals become everything. I know there were times when I was really upset that I wasn’t on the team sheet. I really wanted to be and I worked really hard. That’s what’s really cool, these goals become bigger than life. Whether it’s making the First XV, doing the musical like you said, or getting a house position. They become all-consuming in a good way, I felt very directed at Shawnigan.
HK: Who was your most influential teacher at Shawnigan, and why?
OC: That’s another tough one. You don't realize it as a student, and I’m only just realizing it now being a couple of years out, but I had a kind of teacher I could go talk to for anything: academics, athletics, Welsh rugby with Mr. Samuel. I never felt like there wasn’t someone I could go and chat to about a particular issue.
I think academically speaking, Paul Klassen would be a big one for me. I was a big Model UN kid throughout Shawnigan, that was a really big part of my high school experience. He taught all the classes I ended up being really passionate about, namely in the humanities, and I went on a lot of trips with him for Model UN. He’s just an unbelievably passionate and supportive guy and I still talk to him every now and again. He always asks me for my papers! He wants to read them for some reason, so I’ll send him a few of them throughout the year. Definitely academically speaking he’d be the guy.
Athletically, I know he’s not at the school anymore, but Mr. Ander Monro in my first year. I came to Shawnigan loving rugby, but definitely didn’t have any stripes coming in. I wasn’t a provincial or regional player, and a lot of the guys were already. I remember the first practice, we had a chat about rugby and coming to Shawnigan. I really cherished that, he really helped me with rugby and was also my English teacher. That’s the really hilarious thing about Shawnigan: I’ll be getting it from Mr. Monro in English class when I don’t do my homework, and then getting it on the field when my kicking isn’t up to par.
HK: I can’t believe Mr. Klassen is asking to read more papers! That is just so heartwarming: these teachers are so busy, and he still cares enough about your journey that he really wants to see your work after the fact. That’s amazing.
OC: Yeah, and the Model UN Fine Art actually comes to Montreal pretty regularly. That was how I found out about it. McGill wasn’t on my radar originally whatsoever. I ended up going on a trip with the Model UN group, and I loved the university and loved the city. I remember on that trip he invited some alumni to come to a social, and now I’ve gotten to be a part of that as an alumni every year until this year and I love that. I get to see Mr. Klassen once a year in Montreal, and it’s very special. It’s interesting, the relationship is very strong even though it’s very far apart and we don’t chat every day.
HK: In what ways did Shawnigan shape your life after?
OC: These questions are so tough just because Shawnigan, and I do mean this in the most sincere way, changed me front to back. It wasn’t just in an athletics way, it wasn’t just in academics, or socially, everything. I felt I was really able to figure out what I liked, what I was interested in, and passionate about. It’s tough not to say: all areas.
I’ve thought about it a lot and tried to narrow it down in a way. First, it taught me a lot about independence. There is a worry that with Shawnigan you’re going to boarding school, you’re getting a lot of help, there’s teachers all around, you might get a little comfortable with this life that isn’t going to be anything like university. But I actually disagree with that, to an extent.
With going to Shawnigan, there were a lot of little independent things you had to do. Whether it was getting on a five-and-a-half hour flight by myself every break, being responsible for keeping my room clean, house duty jobs I had in Grade 9, or in Grade 12 when I was a prefect. The responsibilities made me realize that it’s good to take that stuff on. It’s important to, and you can learn a lot from it.
So firstly, I would say it’s the independence that I learned to accept and also to love.
Secondly, I also had to learn how to work with people I didn’t like at Shawnigan, and that’s a big part of it. Whether it was in the boarding house, on the rugby pitch, or in a class, or wherever. It didn’t matter, you were still in Dux[bury] together, still on the First XV together. You still had to respect each other, work hard and get through it together.
Those were the two that prepared me for life after Shawnigan: be independent and be prepared to work in a situation with someone or in an environment where you weren’t comfortable.
HK: You’ve touched on this but what made you choose your area of study after Shawnigan?
OC: You know it’s funny, I came to Shawnigan not a good student, and I remember having a chat with Mrs. Samuel, saying to her that that would change if I went there. I just had no idea what I wanted to learn about in high school let alone university. I didn’t like math, I didn’t like science, I just really wasn’t sure what I liked. I think the variety of the courses at Shawnigan helped. Even being able to take something like an AP Comparative Government class, which was with Mr. Klassen. I had never thought about going into Political Science, and I am now a Political Science and Communications student at McGill. I never would have thought about going into this, but having the ability to be in a Fine Art like Model UN while also taking courses about comparative government or Canadian history. It made my decision going to university very easy. I wanted something that even in the worst of times, I wouldn’t want to drop out. When I’ve got five papers due, and an exam in the next week, I have to enjoy it.
Also, again I never would have gone to McGill if not for the Model UN trip.
HK: How did Shawnigan prepare you for life after?
OC: I hate saying the whole experience, but that’s what it is. Also, I don’t want to say that my experience was exactly like everyone else's. My sister for example is a very different case to me, she’s very Math and Science oriented, and more fine-art orientated. Her experience is beyond different to mine, but we came out with the same independence and confidence going to university. I definitely felt confident and ready for university. I was not at one point worried about it. I had lived in another part of the country from my family, I had balanced academics and athletics. There was a bunch of wind in my sails.
I’ve talked to friends here that have said: “I just wasn’t ready for first year,” and I felt bad for them because I felt ready. As soon as I graduated from Shawnigan, I felt ready.
The interview featured in this article has been shortened for clarity and brevity.
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