[Correction: misprint of Alexandra’s name in newspaper, correct spelling used in online post]
by Armand LaPlante
Alexandra Thomson is from Carry the Kettle First Nation; she grew up in Regina and attended O’Neill high school. Shortly after graduating grade 12 in French immersion, Alexandra moved to Saskatoon in 2010 to attend the University of Saskatchewan for Chemical Engineering. Since being at the University of Saskatchewan, Alexandra has been acknowledged for her achievements in Chemical Engineering by receiving an Aboriginal Achievement Week achievement award, scholarships, and being on the Dean’s honour roll.
Indigenous Times: What attracted you to Chemical Engineering?
Alexandra: I didn’t really know what it was to be honest, just through high school I came to enjoy math and I also started to enjoy chemistry near the end of my high school career in grade 12. Chemical engineering has both [math and chemistry] so I went into it for that reason mainly.
IT: What do you hope to do for your community when you graduate?
A: For [Carry the Kettle], but what could also pertain to the Aboriginal community as a whole, I would eventually like to get into finding solutions to the water crisis on First Nations land. I would like to see clean water on First Nations land, I would like to work on projects to do with that. I would also like to eventually look into renewable energy, finding ways to ensure first nations communities can live on renewable, sustainable energy without using fuel and without it costing too much money and using too much electricity. But in the meantime, I would like to give back to my own community by offering math help, coming in and talking to students, and offering tutoring services.
IT: What would be your advice to Aboriginal youth interested in engineering, or even other math and science areas?
A: For those who are interested in math and science already I would say get your foundation in high school. Make sure you are learning as much as you can in high school because your teachers are there right now to help you and you can ask them questions; you learn a lot faster and you retain that knowledge. When you come into university you’re more independent so you don’t have teachers there holding your hand, and if you run into a problem and you need help you have to find solutions on your own; so if students can work hard in high school that’s beneficial. Also, don’t be afraid of the challenge, don’t be scared when people say ‘engineering is so hard’ because you don’t have to be a genius to go into engineering. You don’t have to be the smartest student. My marks were all over in high school, I had 90s in some areas and 50s in other areas […] you just need to know how to work hard and you need to know how to work well with others. It’s about working as a team; you’re not completely alone when you get here, you just have to find your resources. If students are struggling in math or science, it’s never too late to upgrade or improve your skills.
IT: Is it hard to succeed in Chemical Engineering?
[…] It’s hard to get good grades in engineering. That’s another thing to keep in mind: if you’re a student who’s used to getting good grades in high school, if you see in engineering that your marks drop down to 50 and 60 that’s completely normal.
The first year is the hardest because they give you a lot of courses, there’s a lot of different content, there’s heavy math involved, but they do provide a lot of resources to help you get through it.
IT: How is it being a minority in engineering both as a woman and as an Aboriginal person?
A: In school, the biggest challenge I face with engineering is there’s not a lot of culture, and of course when [Aboriginals] are so underrepresented in engineering it’s so hard to identify with your culture and to learn about your culture and to be immersed in it. That’s something engineering is looking to change, they’ve hired an Indigenous Peoples Initiative Coordinator; his name is Matthew Dunn. He’s working on some Aboriginal initiatives there to make it more welcoming and inclusive of Aboriginal people. I find that I come to the Aboriginal Students Centre to study more than I stay in engineering because I identify with this community and I feel as though I belong here and I just like that sense of belonging. That’s the biggest challenge I face in school.
In industry though, I did come across some racism and you hear some sexist jokes and sexist humour in the workplace. That’s something you have to learn to deal with, they don’t really prepare you to deal with that kind of stuff in university so I’m still learning how.
IT: There’s a lack of numbers of Aboriginals in math and science areas, how can we overcome this?
A: I think that we need to start young -- with the youth. We need role models and we need to demonstrate that math is possible and it’s not as daunting and it’s not as difficult as people perceive it to be because that’s one of the misconceptions. They need support and they need to be trained at an early age on how to approach problem solving. And for Aboriginal people who are past that stage, we need initiatives in the university to be more inclusive of Aboriginal people; we need a space, we need a meeting place in engineering, we need to identify with each other, and we need to talk about the issues that we face in engineering. I think we also need to come up with a program that’s just for Aboriginal engineering students; the college of education has SUNTEP, the college of arts & science has First Year Transition Program, and the college of law has the Native Law Program. We need something like that in engineering. There should be a summer program to help prepare Aboriginal students for the challenges that they will face in first year engineering, and to get their math skills up to par -- that would also facilitate a sense of community and belonging and they would gain support for each other.
IT: Do you see yourself as one of the role models?
A: I do because we are so underrepresented I think anyone who is indigenous in engineering is a role model and they should take on that role of being a role model to help inspire the youth because we need Aboriginal engineers, we need people with technical mindsets, skills, and abilities to create change. Law, socialism, and activism, all of that is great and we need that; but we absolutely need Aboriginal engineers because there is a water crisis on the land.
IT: What do you plan to do when you graduate?
A: I [graduate] in June , I am either going to work as a career, or I will just work for the summer, or I was thinking of going to grad school. For grad school I would go into an engineering program that would also be combined with Native Studies; and I would want to work with First Nations communities to help come up with solutions to the water crisis.
IT: Any last comments?
A: One thing I think needs to be done is they need more Indigenous knowledge incorporated into the university content and into the courses because right now we don’t approach engineering with any Indigenous ways of knowing or living. We don’t see examples of engineering in the past, so I think to retain Aboriginal students, we need to incorporate more Indigenous knowledge. •
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