I started the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS) program in 2011. It was ten years later than I expected to be starting graduate school, and I had no idea how much I would gain from Athabasca University (AU).
Or how much my life would change.
The first thing that struck me about returning to school was how much I had missed research and talking about “big” ideas with my peers. I was energized by the material, encouraged, and inspired by my professors, and proud of my results. But something was missing still.
I became involved with Athabasca University Graduate Students Association (AUGSA) as a faculty representative because I wanted to feel more like a student. Between work, parenting, and living in a semi-rural community more than an hour away from the closest university, online education was my only option. However, I missed being surrounded by students and the energy from sharing ideas outside of the classroom, and I thought student council would fill that void.
At that time, I would have identified myself as an introvert, and others often described me as shy and soft-spoken—hardly words used to describe student leaders on bricks–and–mortar campuses.
Truth be told, had I known there was an election involved I would never have replied to the email asking for interested students to join council. I threw my hat in the ring on a whim and never expected to win an election. But I did win. And once on council I wanted to make the most out of the experience, so I volunteered for extra duties and even chaired the Compensation Committee. Very different activities than I expected to be involved in at AU.
Two years later and shortly after nominations were opened for AUGSA executive elections, I remember very clearly driving home on a sunny winter afternoon and thinking, “why couldn’t I?” After a long conversation with Lynde, the outgoing president, I decided to take a risk and run for president. I was both excited and terrified when I was acclaimed for the position. It turns out there was nothing to be terrified about.
Over my term as president, I found out more about what I was able to do than I could have imagined. Sitting at AU’s Board of Governors meetings, I was confident that what I had to say was important and found that my voice was respected.
As a delegate at the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) I was surrounded by outgoing 20-somethings. Whereas 15 years earlier I might have said, “This is not for me, these people aren’t like me,” the truth I learned is that this is for me because they are not like me.
I learned that I didn’t have to be conventional to be an important voice at the table. This is one of the truly life-changing revelations studying at Athabasca taught me. AU students are unconventional, and the voices we bring to academia are unique. We are inspired and influenced by where we are from, what we have done, and our challenges. In discussion forums, we can examine “best practices” from across the country, or around the world. One of my term papers explored rural adult learning. A key finding in the literature was that by offering courses by distance, people could not only stay at home to study and apply what they studied in their home communities right away, but also that home influenced what they studied.
It is AU students’ voices that need to be heard. I met with members of parliament and senators in Ottawa as a CASA delegate. I also spoke with the member of the legislative assembly for Athabasca and the minister of advanced education for Alberta. I proudly talked about how vital AU has been thousands of students who otherwise could not meet their educational goals and how valuable the results of our research are. When you take learners from across the country, from every imaginable career and personal background and let them collaborate in academia—astounding things can happen.
And when you take a mom from Innisfil, ON and give her the chance to champion those astounding things, life can change. Athabasca gave me a path to complete my graduate degree—that was the goal I knew I had— and empowered me to speak out for what I believe in—that is the goal I never imagined!
Cynthia graduated in 2016 from the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS) program in the Work, Organization, and Leadership focus area. Her research focused on classism in the public sector workplace, rural learning, and the labour movement.
Serving as the president of the Athabasca University Graduate Students’ Association for the 2015/2016 term she was able to advocate for Athabasca’s unique student body at the federal and provincial level. This sparked a passion for the need to advocate for access to education for rural and remote learners in their home communities.
Cynthia also completed a Bachelor of Arts Degree in psychology of at the University of Guelph. Much of her professional career has been spent working in the public and non-for-profit sectors with a focus on career and employment consulting.
Cynthia lives in Innisfil, ON with her 11-year-old son. In her free time, she volunteers with the Innisfil Minor Baseball Association Executive and other community organizations.