“I struggle with the word power”: An Interview with Ann Buller

Says Ann Buller, President and CEO of Centennial College, on being named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women.

Having assumed the presidency of Centennial College in 2004, Ann Buller has proved herself time and again. From Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (Governor General of Canada, 2013) to President’s/Chancellor’s Award (North American Council for Staff Program and Organizational Development, 2010), Buller added yet another feather in her overcrowded cap when she was recently named Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network—a title given to her in 2010 as well.

Buller has been working in the education sector for the past 25 years. And what does the view from the top look like? “There are no typical days,” said Buller, who agreed to an interview on a Monday, when she already had five other appointments. “It’s fast-paced and November-December are especially hectic. I am not married and have no kids, therefore, it’s a little easier to manage tasks. However, I do spend my weekends, whenever I am not working, with my mother. I am also a huge believer of trying to stay healthy. Sometimes, you just have to get out and get away. This summer, I went hiking in Iceland; last year, I went trekking in Nepal.”

And it’s with this honest admission that one realizes that Ann Buller is more than what meets the eye—President and CEO of the oldest publicly funded college in Ontario, but also one who makes her own rules and lives by them.

“I struggle with the word power”

“I am deeply honoured, but I struggle with the word ‘power,'” admitted Buller in regard to her title as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women. Also the Chair of the Canadian Bureau for International Education and a keynote speaker at various national and international conferences, Buller said, “I’d rather go with the word ’empowerment,’ it offers hope and support. Being ‘powerful’ can sometimes be problematic, I’d rather be known as someone who made a difference and continues to do so.”

And making a difference she, indeed, is credited with. To name a few, “Paint the Town Green” was an initiative organized under the leadership of Buller as part of Centennial’s 50th anniversary celebration. Not only did students gather at 11 prominent parks in Toronto, but environment friendly acts were conducted in 11 partner countries such as China, Korea, India, Turkey, Panama, and Brazil to name a few. The 50th Anniversary Gala raised a whopping $1 million dollars; the proceeds go towards advancing accessible learning across Ontario. And recently, Centennial College opened up its $85 million Residence and Culinary Arts Centre.

Living the migrant life and breaking into the old boys club

“Born in Scotland, I moved to Canada as a little girl,” said Buller. When asked whether education was the field she always wanted to work in, she replied, “I wanted to be a teacher, an astronaut, and a host of other things. It wasn’t until I was in Humber College, where I studied Public Relations, that I was drawn into this field.” Buller later went on to pursue her Masters degree in Education from Central Michigan University. “My father always made me feel that I could do whatever I wanted to do. We weren’t a wealthy family, but we were close knit and it was good to know that I had the freedom to make mistakes.”

When it comes to rising to the top, Buller admitted that it wasn’t a cakewalk. “There was sexism, old boys network, who would assume that your first job when you would entre the room is to get them coffee. But I have been lucky. I had peers that challenged and supported me. When I applied for the vice-presidency and presidency, there were mentors, both female and male, who encouraged me to go ahead.”

If not education, then…

“A writer,” she quipped. “As a little girl, I wanted to be a singer, but I realized I just could not sing. But I love to write. If not education, I would have taken up journalism. Apart from writing for work-related documents, I also write poetry,” said Ann.

(Photo provided by Ann Buller)

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