From One Kingston to Another

Smith MIS Professor Yolande Chan, born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, has called its Ontario namesake home for 26 years. Educated at MIT and at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Yolande had her pick of countries that would have welcomed her as an immigrant. Canada and Smith School of Business have been the beneficiaries of this accomplished professor’s decision to settle here.
By: 
Shelley Pleiter
Issue: 

Yolande Chan’s record of academic achievements began early. She attended two of the top high schools in Jamaica, becoming head girl at one and class valedictorian at the other. That all four of their children would attend university was a given to Yolande’s parents, George Brown, a lawyer, and Phyllis Brown, who made it her career to raise the children. Both parents excelled at high school and were scholarship winners. Yolande, too, was offered scholarships, by MIT, Harvard and Yale, among others. She chose MIT for her undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, which was followed by a dual Master’s degree in engineering and in computer science.

“I was on the academic path,” says Yolande, who saw a PhD in computer science as the next logical step. “I looked around, though, and saw that many of my MIT classmates had very unbalanced and unhealthy lifestyles. The student who was considered most successful literally lived in his office; he’d even moved in a cot so he could sleep there. I knew that wasn’t the life for me!” 

With prompting from family, Yolande applied for a Rhodes Scholarship to study management at Oxford University and was selected to represent Jamaica. She found the intense two-year MPhil in Management Studies program both rewarding and challenging. Her time at Oxford would prove to be life changing when she met and married a fellow Rhodes Scholar, Michael Chan. As their studies were nearing completion, the two scholars did not have long before they had to determine their next move. 

The most attractive option turned out to be Toronto, where Michael accepted a psychiatric residency at U of T and Yolande landed a position at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) advising clients on management information systems (MIS). A heavy travel schedule and 60-hour workweek didn’t offer the lifestyle that Yolande wanted to have while starting a family. “While I thoroughly enjoyed the work and acquired skills that I use to this day, I knew that my long-term future lay elsewhere,” Yolande explains. 

The future she chose was academia, in the field of business administration. Her experience, especially at Oxford, had shown her that professors can have the flexibility to balance their professional and family obligations. At the very least, excessive travel wouldn’t be an issue. To stay with her husband in Canada, Yolande decided to apply to a Canadian university. She applied to and was accepted by Western University’s PhD in Business Administration program, where she specialized in MIS. Yolande and Michael became Canadian citizens in 1990. 

Yolande’s first academic appointment, at Queen’s business school, (now Smith School of Business) would turn out to be the first step in a long and fruitful career at Queen’s. Her early years as an assistant professor of Management Information Systems (MIS) were challenging, though. Son Jonathan was born just a few weeks before Yolande and Michael moved to Kingston, where Michael would also find professional fulfilment as a forensic psychiatrist. Yolande was completing her PhD dissertation, nursing an infant, and starting her teaching career in those early years. “I recall many weeks when my work days ended at 2 a.m.,” she says. 

In July, Yolande will mark 26 years at Queen’s. A gifted educator, she has taught students at the undergraduate, MBA and graduate levels and counts the Commerce Teaching Excellence Award and the Commerce Professor-Student Life Award among her many honours. She is a prolific researcher frequently published in the top academic journals in the MIS field, as her 40-page CV attests. Her numerous administrative roles have included Director of Smith’s research-oriented Monieson Centre; Queen’s Associate Vice-Principal, Research; and co-chair of the Principal’s Implementation Committee on Racism, Diversity and Inclusion, which released its final report in April. In July, she will take on the role of Associate Dean, Research and MSc/PhD Programs, as her predecessor, Jay Handelman, assumes the role of Associate Dean, Faculty. 

Hers continues to be a rewarding career, Yolande says, but her primary focus has always been family — both her husband and two sons, and her extended family in Jamaica. “Canada has afforded us many opportunities,” Yolande says. “Michael and I have both thrived professionally. Our two sons have also excelled,” she says of Jonathan, who is completing a Master’s in Law and Finance at Oxford University, and David, who graduated from Queen’s Commerce in May. “Our choice, though, has also involved sacrifice, since both Michael and I come from close-knit families. I’m in frequent, often daily, contact with my siblings and widowed mother in Jamaica, but some days the distance between us feels immense.”  

Yolande is looking forward to her new role as Associate Dean. “One of the highlights of my professional life has been supervising and mentoring MSc and PhD students,” she says. “Most of my graduate students have become co-authors on research papers that have advanced our field of knowledge, and I take great pride in their many accomplishments.” 

When Yolande begins her five-year appointment on July 1, a whole new cohort of graduate students will reap the benefits of her deep expertise and strong commitment to their success.