'Long before there were universities and accredited organizations, there was simply learning'

A writer living with a rare cancer, Julie Rohr gave the graduation speech of the pandemic

If you missed Pandemic University’s Grad and Wrap Party on May 31, you missed a lot: a surprise commencement speech and AMA with the inimitable Peter Mansbridge, a ridiculous and sometimes cringe-worthy “game show,” and beautiful work read by authors from the PanU community. But it was Julie Rohr’s Valedictorian address that stole the show.

Julie is a writer, photographer and community advocate in Central Alberta. She worked for a newspaper before devoting herself to freelance photography, but more recently returned to her first passion: writing. For the past few years, she has documented her journey living with a rare cancer with remarkable grace and honesty. We hope her words will inspire more people to tell the stories that connect us.

Hello everyone, I’m really grateful for this opportunity.

I’d like to start by thanking Omar, Sam and the entire Pandemic University Faculty for the experience we’ve shared these past weeks as we endeavoured to make the most of our time in self-isolation during what has turned out to be a unique time in history. Thanks especially to each instructor for their excellent presentations.

The classes were a delight to attend, and it was obvious that every presenter put a lot of time and effort into their offerings. We were taken on journeys and provided with valuable tips, from Marcello Di Cintio’s “eye roll test” to Ayelet Tsabari’s thoughtful commentary on show and tell. Katherine Laidlaw took us into the “shadowy places” and Katilin Fontana made us laugh. By taking the time that we have to focus on the craft we all share – our writing – I’m certain we have all gained benefits and learned information that will last many years into the future.   

My name is Julie Rohr, and I’m very honoured to have been christened the valedictorian of the first ever semester at Pandemic University. While PanU may be hashtag ‘unaccreditedAF’, and our degrees may be fake ones, I will nonetheless cherish the hours we sat together staring into our computer screens and soaking up bits of wisdom from some giants in the field.

I have loved reading and writing since childhood. I was homeschooled before homeschooling was mandatory, so I had the privilege of being able to bury myself in great books for hours on end during my days at home. I journaled voraciously; looking back on my childhood journals now is a bit of a window into a world I’ve long forgotten. I would create my own ‘newspapers’ with my family being the subscribers, and I have fond memories of asking my younger siblings to play “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” while I would play the role of April, the reporter.

After graduating from Grant MacEwan’s Journalism program in 2004, I went to work at a community newspaper in Sherwood Park. I loved almost everything about that job; I loved being able to share people’s stories, and I equally appreciated the opportunity to photograph my own stories. I went on to focus on the photography aspect for several years after I left the paper, and transitioned away from journalism towards a fulfilling photography career while juggling parenting. I photographed mostly weddings, babies and family photos, along with some corporate gigs. And while I still wrote a lot for personal reflection during those years, I was very much missing the chance to connect with readers, to write for an audience, for a purpose, to tell important stories.

In November of 2015 I was diagnosed with a rare cancer which doctors told me had no cure. About 1 in 1 million people are diagnosed with Leiomyosarcoma, and the average lifespan of someone diagnosed with this diagnosis is 12 – 18 months. At the time, I was 33 years old, had a 6 year old son and 9 year old stepson. My husband and I struggled to make sense of what was now our new reality. As time passed and I underwent massive surgeries, chemotherapies, radiation and continued metastasis, I found myself writing my experience. It started with a few vulnerable posts on social media, and I quickly realized my writing was resonating with people.

I started to write with intention; if I was in a meeting with my oncologist, I would gather the information he was sharing with me as if I were going to write a story about it. As if what I was living out was happening to someone else, and it was my job to document her story as best I could. This “balcony” perspective helped me to sort of take a step back from my own trauma and see it more as research, as information gathering, so I could help others who might be living in the same situation.

The writing was therapeutic, yes, but as we heard from Christina Frangou, “If you are doing it for therapy, hire someone to talk to. If you are doing it for revenge, hire a lawyer.” If we are writing for an audience, we’ll gather much different details than if we were just writing for therapy. I would take note of the shirt my doctor was wearing, of how she adjusted her glasses; I would take note of the exact phrase used to time my breathing when I was laying in the MRI scanner. It gave me a bigger reason to be there – I wasn’t just getting an MRI scan because I was “sick.” I was getting an MRI scan for RESEARCH for my book. That changes the way you look at something. In her session on food writing, Jennifer Cockrall-King encouraged us to “take the reader on a journey,” and as I look back on how I was documenting my own journey, I recognized I was gathering information to bring the reader with me.

As I shared my writing publicly through social media, I started getting responses not only from people I knew, but complete strangers who felt a kinship because they had read a piece of my writing. During her excellent class, Dr. Roderique said something that stuck with me, which is that “vulnerability is rarer than we think it is.” And when a writer is appropriately vulnerable in sharing a difficult story, it can resonate deeply with many more people than we even expect it to. Thanks to the encouragement of Omar and some other people in the industry, I wrote a piece for the CBC about my journey, and I got a lot of responses to that piece. It reiterated to me that my writing could be a source of hope to someone else who may be in a tough situation.

I’m currently working on a memoir, and with the encouragement of some writer friends, I think I’m getting close to finishing. As Jana Pruden so succinctly expressed when she quoted her former professor: craft liberates art, and thanks to Pandemic University, I feel like I have many  more tools to help me hone the craft and guide me on the hike through the dense forest of this memoir. I’m grateful to one of my local writing heroes, Todd Babiak, who put me in touch with an agent that gave me great insight into the industry and next steps forward. Thanks to these weeks at Pandemic University, I am inspired to start pitching some broader story ideas to several publications, and thanks to Omar’s encouragement, I have expanded on his “pitch spreadsheet” with deadline dates to keep me organized and accountable. Michael Hingston’s suggestions about how to create a great proposal have propelled me to re-look at my own ideas and how I can effectively pitch them to editors. I was inspired by Michael Lista to submit a poem to a new publication, and it was accepted for publication. It will be published in the first edition of Lida Literary Magazine in June. And thanks to Omar’s incredible session on the tech for writers, I am exploring a bunch of new applications and fancy pens to help

What will we take with us from our time together? Long before there were universities and accredited organizations, there was simply learning. The sharing of knowledge, one person to another. The telling of stories. The connecting of people through the spoken and written word. This is what we have just participated in through this spring semester. No, we don’t get official credits. We don’t get a framed degree to hang on our walls – but the hours of information we have learned are so beneficial. It’s vital that we embrace the concept of being lifelong learners if we want to adapt and change with the times we live in.

There’s a lot going on out there, and the only way through it is to keep our eyes and ears open, to be able to change and grow. I love these words from philosopher and writer Eric Hoffer. He said “In times of change, learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” We are certainly in an unprecedented time, for many reasons.

What will the writing industry look like after we crawl out from our COVID caves? Who knows. But I believe the experience we’ve shared through Pandemic University will inspire us to be learners, continually honing our craft and committing to sharing the important stories, no matter how difficult they are to tell. I look forward to reading all the pieces that will be published as a result of these classes. This is how we move forwards, as communities and societies, in troubled times. We use our words to tell the stories that connect us.

Thank you so much for this opportunity.