Our Campus: Dr. Ben Cheung is building community — one bagel at a time

Content warning: This article contains a mention of suicide.

Dr. Benjamin Cheung can vividly recall the “strange, almost surreal” feeling that he was in the right place, doing the right thing after teaching his first psychology course in 2013. Years later, Cheung still enjoys teaching.

“I've been teaching for five, going on six years now, and I have never regretted going into teaching,” he said.

But attending psychology graduate school was actually Cheung's plan B when he started his undergraduate degree at UBC. Cheung originally thought that he wanted to go to medical school. After taking an organic chemistry course, he quickly realized that it was not an option.

Cheung was drawn to psychology for the same reasons, he says, as many others are — the desire to help and understand people.

“I would not have done anything differently,” Cheung said of his work. “I really treasure all that I've learned in the psychology department.”

But Cheung has concerns about mental health issues on campus, as well as the cold, anonymous feeling that large class sizes can give students. When a student in one of his classes died by suicide last year, it hit Cheung particularly hard.

“That really affected me because I had no idea,” he said. “I was struggling with a lot of guilt, and a lot of self-blame about whether or not I could have done something more, whether or not I could have said something, if I could have made more of a connection.”

This experience, as well as other experiences where students have confided in him about their mental health struggles, has led Cheung to try to do whatever possible to improve student mental health.

Cheung is involved with the Wellness Centre at UBC and collaborates with them on mental health research. While he acknowledges that the university is trying to do a lot, Cheung believes more resources are needed on campus for students struggling with mental health issues. Last November, the wait time for an urgent psychiatry referral at UBC Student Health Services was one to three weeks and six to eight weeks for a non-urgent referral.

“It's never enough. …Enough means that we have perfect mental health, and that we have no concerns, we have no wait lines for counselling, and whatever needs people have we completely address. And I don't know if that is ever a realistic outcome.”

All of these factors, combined with a grad seminar on how to teach psychology, led Cheung to create Bagels with Ben, an initiative where he invites students from his classes to eat bagels each week and to talk about life in a casual, low-stakes environment outside of class time.

“I wanted to create this environment where people can come together, create community, and to get to know each other, and I feel like it's getting at that need for community, need for affiliation,” he said. “Hopefully coming to these improves their well being, improves their sense of connection with the department, with me [and] with their peers.”

Conversations at Bagels with Ben include but are not limited to good restaurants in Vancouver, study strategies, concerns about grad school and individual life experiences. As many as 15 students attend per session.

So that begs the question — why bagels?

“Bananas seemed weird and lame. I didn't want to go with ‘Brunch with Ben,’ because sometimes they're in the afternoons. I didn't want to go with ‘Baguettes with Ben’ because they're really big, long and unwieldy,” explained Cheung.

Aside from his extracurriculars, Cheung is currently working on a collaborative research project with the UBC department of psychology's Dr. Steven Heine and Dr. Albert Lee (Lee Kai Chung) of Singapore's Nanyang Tech University. They are examining the idea of incremental theory of the self, commonly known as the concept of growth mindset.

“The literature has tended to talk about the positive aspects of a growth mindset, and I agree, there are a lot of positive things about the growth mindset,” Cheung said, “including things like encouraging more perseverance, not giving up after you fail or do poorly.”

Cheung's research, however, aims to understand the potential downsides of having a growth mindset.

“What if the person engaged in this mindset doesn't have that kind of thinking — that, ‘Okay, I need to stop, because this doesn't seem realistic’ — then what happens?” questioned Cheung. “What are the negative impacts on mental wellbeing and mental health when we don't know how to disengage from a goal?”

There is also a cultural aspect to the growth mindset, as it is more prevalent in certain cultural environments. according to Cheung. His research seeks to understand the effect of the growth mindset on mental wellbeing across different cultures.

Although Cheung enjoys the research aspect of being a professor, for him, it always comes back to his students.

“I learn a lot about life from talking to undergrads, and I also learn a lot about the undergrads themselves,” he said.

Cheung wants students to know how important it is for their well being that they get involved and make connections, and that many opportunities exist to build community.

“I think students often underestimate the opportunities that are there because they're so focused on studying — understandably so — but we're here,” he said. “And the opportunities do exist, so if people look harder, they'll be there.”