Siobhán McPhee’s Geographical Exploration


Siobhán holds a joint role with the Geography department and Vantage College

It’s probably safe to assume that Siobhán McPhee’s first international move – to Africa at age three – primed her for her current role as professor in the Geography department and Vantage College.

Born in Vancouver, Siobhán spent most of her childhood in Africa and later the Middle East. It was during this time her fascination with geography was born. She moved to Ireland (her mother’s homeland) to study anthropology and economics. That was followed by another stint in the Middle East, where she exchanged the role of student for that of teacher in an Abu Dhabi international school.

She returned to Ireland to complete her first Masters before a research position took her to Bangladesh. It was there she picked up Bangla, her fourth language (she was already fluent in English, Arabic and French), and a keen interest in labour migration. Her next move was to the UK, where she did her second Masters and started her PhD. A scholarship sent her back to Ireland to complete her research, and solidify her position as a thought leader in low-skilled labour migration.

When the role at UBC came up two years ago – a joint position in the Department of Geography and the yet-to-be-opened Vantage College – it was an obvious match.

Siobhán explains: “I was really excited to join an internationally-renowned department and a team of people I had admired so much when doing my research as a student.”

Vantage College – which supports English-language learners through their first year at UBC and welcomed its inaugural class last year – presented a number of opportunities. Having been an international student herself, Siobhán had a head start in understanding the unique and complex needs of the new cohort.

“Being a brand new initiative, Vantage is like a living learning lab,” says Siobhán. “It has given me the opportunity to explore new ways of teaching and learning.”

One such example is her unique approach to field trips, which she developed last year. For a recent class on urban change, instead of trying to take 89 students on a tour of the Downtown Eastside, Siobhán created her own, guided tour using a voice recorder and Google Maps, for students to complete in their own time.

How did students like it? “They loved it!” she says. “Because it meant they could be active learners, and experience the lessons from the class for themselves, in real life.”

As Siobhán enters her third year at UBC, she’s eager to make connections with colleagues who share her passion for the Middle East. In addition, Siobhan plans to start a new course next year, Geographies in the Middle East.

“I feel strongly that this region is underrepresented at UBC, in terms of study and teaching,” says Siobhán. “I encourage anyone interested in the Middle East, or who are also new to UBC and Vancouver for that matter, to get in touch. I’d love to connect with you!”


Siobhán describes Vantage College as being like a living learning lab, which has given her the opportunity to explore new ways of teaching and learning.

Originally published on Working at UBC, UBC Faculty & Staff.