Coming full circle through education
After beginning her career doing social work in Calgary, Athabasca University alumna Joy Bowen-Eyre has come full circle as CEO of one of the city’s prominent social agencies.
As the CEO of The Alex, which provides well-rounded health and social supports for a predominantly marginalized client base, she is taking a leadership role in helping to transform her community.
“We see those individuals who typically don’t get served elsewhere, who require a great deal of support because they have some complex issues,” she said. “Many of our clients are either at risk of being homeless, are homeless, or were homeless.”
She credits her master’s degree in educational studies from Athabasca University as playing an integral role in helping her land this position, along with her experience as chair of the Calgary Board of Education, but her passion for making the world a better place predates her professional experience.
Born and raised in England for the first 12 years of her life, Bowen-Eyre’s family immigrated to Canada in the early 1980s. But six months later, after her mother tragically died, life for their family became much more difficult.
The family made the decision to stay in Canada. It was “whirlwind, crazy time” for her and her brother, who was eight years old at the time, and it was made even more challenging when her father took the stoic approach that everything was fine, and the family didn’t need support.
“What I realized, as I started to get older, is that it would have been helpful to have some grief counselling or supports,” she said. “So when I grew up, I decided I wanted to help people—help people who were like me.”
When Bowen-Eyre finished high school, she enrolled at the University of Calgary doing a bachelor of arts in sociology. Because she also needed to help support her family during that time, she was also working three jobs—including one at a drug-and-alcohol treatment facility for women, which gave her her first social-work position.
After finishing her BA, she took a position with McMan Youth, Family and Community Services Association. Then she took another, and another, and another.
“I worked every position they had there,” she said. “I did front-line work with at-risk youth, I did foster care in-home support, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder program, I coordinated volunteers and practicum students, then I managed foster-care programs.”
Engaging in education
While she had a broad base of experience in social work, Bowen-Eyre knew she would need a master’s degree to go further in her career, but while she was working and caring for three young children, she knew a traditional classroom environment wasn’t going to work for her.
She had previous experience at AU, having done a class for her undergraduate in 1991 “back when they still mailed you a box of books.” It had been a positive experience, and she knew AU would be the right choice for her.
In spring 2009, she enrolled in the master of arts program and settled on education studies because she knew it would give her the opportunity to get more involved in the education system, something she had always wanted to do.
Bowen-Eyre had never been particularly involved in politics, but when one of her children was having a hard time as a learner, she looked for ways to get more involved in the education system. Shortly after she began her program, in fall 2010 she decided the put her name forward to run as a public-school trustee in Calgary.
And in a turn of events that came as a bit of a surprise to her, she became an “underdog candidate who came out of nowhere” and won the seat.
She finished her MA during her first term in office, and her experiences on the board actually helped her determine the focus of her capstone project: exploring the educational outcome differences between Indigenous youth and their Canadian peers.
“It was kind of a culmination of all the work I had done thus far,” she said. “And when I picked that topic, we were having discussions around the board table about Alberta Education not allowing the public release of educational outcomes of Indigenous students—their PAT and diploma scores—because they were not doing well at all.”
“There’s the flexibility I was offered in being able to take this program, and it also caused me to think differently as a critical thinker, to be able to work independently, to be able to manage my time. There are a lot of things along the way that you’re learning that you don’t realize you’re learning.”– Joy Bowen-Eyre, AU alumna and CEO of The Alex
Bowen-Eyre ran again in 2013, again winning her seat. This time she was also elected board chair by her colleagues. During her second term, she was able to see the culmination of a lot of her work, both educationally and professionally.
After working with elders to determine how best to support indigenous students—the advice included creating a beautiful learning space for them rather than teaching them in an older rundown school—the board prioritized modernizing an old school in a neighbourhood with many Indigenous students.
In the fall of 2016, Bowen-Eyre was proud to see the opening of the Niitsitapi Learning Centre, which had been created with the support of an Indigenous architect and the community. It was essentially a complete remodel of an old school.
“It’s the most beautiful building you’ve ever imagined, and the elders who sat around the table and who had advised us, came and said they felt we had finally listened,” Bowen-Eyre said. “It was probably one of my proudest moments and one of the most emotional events I had ever been to in my entire life.”
In 2017 Bowen-Eyre decided she had had enough of holding public office, and chose not to run again. She quickly found a position with the United Way, building a government-relations framework for the not-for-profit organization. She quickly discovered the relationships she had built in her time as a trustee, and the skills she had developed working collaboratively, could be readily applied back in the social services sector.
In November 2018, she was invited to apply for the CEO position at The Alex, and she jumped at the opportunity. She was hired shortly thereafter, beginning work there in January this year.
“For me, I feel like I have come back home. From where I started out to where I’ve ended up, I’ve come full circle,” she said.
And Bowen-Eyre makes no bones about the fact she wouldn’t be where she is now without her experience at AU.
“There’s the flexibility I was offered in being able to take this program, and it also caused me to think differently as a critical thinker, to be able to work independently, to be able to manage my time,” she said. “There are a lot of things along the way that you’re learning that you don’t realize you’re learning.”