AU Rising Star sets sights on not-for-profit leadership
After her own difficult childhood, Odion Welch spends her time supporting Black youth
Be the person you needed when you were growing up. It’s simple, straightforward advice—and has helped Odion Welch become the person she is today.
The Athabasca University (AU) 2021 Rising Star alumni award winner didn’t have it easy as a kid, struggling with education and even being kicked out of high school. She now focuses her professional, educational, and personal efforts on making a difference for the many youth in her life.
Welch (Bachelor of Human Resources and Labour Relations ’17) did this in her professional capacity as a youth mental health co-ordinator at the Africa Centre, an Edmonton-based non-profit organization focused on providing social programs and services to the Black community in Alberta. She now works with HIV Edmonton and the Public Health Agency of Canada on a national HIV prevention program focused on African, Caribbean, and Black communities. She also runs a consulting business, speaking and facilitating workshops on mental health and issues related to equity, diversity, and inclusion.
She also supports youth in her many volunteer roles, and in the role she said is most important to her—being an aunt to a diverse group of nieces and nephews.
But despite knowing she makes a difference in so many people’s lives, Welch said being recognized with the Rising Star alumni award—given annually to recognize an AU graduate who has demonstrated leadership and significant contributions early in their career—was still a surprise.
“It feels really surreal to me,” she said. “I feel like I’m just doing what everybody else is doing, and what I’m supposed to be doing.”
She said the award is also a testament to the value of education, something she came to understand later in life but will now share with anyone who will listen.
“I feel like I’m just doing what everybody else is doing, and what I’m supposed to be doing.”– Odion Welch, 2021 Rising Star Award recipient
Education as a reluctant learner
Welch never planned to attend a post-secondary institution, so the fact she’s now starting a PhD program at Adler University shows how much has changed for her.
She said she struggled in elementary and junior high school, because the poverty and trauma she experienced in her youth made it difficult for her to focus on schoolwork.
“I just wasn’t there. I didn’t feel like it was a really safe place, and just didn’t like it,” she said. “I just didn’t want to do it. It’s like, this is just where I come to socialize.”
In fact, Welch said she was “politely asked to leave” the first high school she attended in Edmonton and didn’t have great results at her second school, either. After graduating, she looked at early childhood development as a career option, and took some post-secondary courses, but didn’t like her career prospects and ended up registering in a general bachelor of arts program—without great results.
“I just wasn’t there mentally. I had moved out at 16 and was just more focused on paying my bills, and being 18 or 19, drinking,” she said. “I totally blew my first year. There’s no other way to describe it.”
She focused instead on her career, realizing she had a way with people and was fairly successful in the retail jobs she worked, getting promoted to manager. But that’s where she hit a wall. To keep advancing to the position of regional manager, she would need some education.
While working full time, she took one or two evening classes a semester and earned a business management diploma from MacEwan University—before hitting that same glass ceiling again. She was told her education would likely land her a position as an account manager, but she was frustrated because that’s not what she wanted to do.
“I just wasn’t there mentally. I had moved out at 16 and was just more focused on paying my bills, and being 18 or 19, drinking. I totally blew my first year. There’s no other way to describe it. ”– Odion Welch
A rising star
Looking to once again improve her skills and education, and deciding that human resources was a topic she enjoyed, Welch registered at AU.
The flexibility of AU meant she didn’t have to sit in a classroom during the evening and could fit her education around the other things that were important in her life.
After completing her degree in 2017, she had no intention of pursuing graduate studies. But on the advice of one of her advisors, she reconsidered, and is now nearly finished a master of leadership program at Royal Roads University.
“Education has become like this insatiable bug for me,” Welch said. “I got my recruitment designation after my HR degree, and I’ve taken some financial licences, because, why not?”
But more than just giving Welch the confidence to continue her studies, her experience studying at AU prepared her for her work role in a way she never expected.
She began working with the Africa Centre in early 2020, mere months before COVID-19 would change the way we live, work, and study. When the pandemic hit, she was already very comfortable with the idea of studying online, and was able to use that experience to better support the youth she worked with as they transitioned to online schooling.
Welch’s comfort with online education and meeting tools also helped her understand how to reach a broader audience with programming. This helped her to connect the Africa Centre with similar service providers all around the country to focus on professional development and opportunities to collaborate regardless of physical location.
And her passion for mental health, informed in no small part by her own experiences and struggles with depression and with finding a therapist who worked for her, likewise became more important as pandemic-related stress set in for many people.
“My experience, my education, my lived experience, and my worked experience are all able to make an impact,” she said. “If that can save one person’s life, then I know I did it right.”
To add to Welch’s many existing accomplishments, including self-publishing a book about mental health, completing a triathlon despite not knowing how to swim just weeks before the event, organizing a well-attended and well-received diverse women’s panel at an Edmonton comic convention, and creating a counselling clinic at the Africa Centre that’s the first of its kind in Western Canada, she is now working on a doctorate of organizational leadership from Adler University.
She said she hopes to continue working in the not-for-profit sector in a way that helps different groups come together and accomplish more for their clients.
“Nothing perturbs me more than anything is when I see a bunch of little silos that could get together and do so much more,” she said. “You see resources spread so thin, but we need to rely on each other and communicate with each other.”
This story was first published in 2021 and was updated in 2023.