Power To Choose

Jessica Saunders

Designing Her Own Destiny

Jessica Saunders spent her formative years on the coast of central British Columbia, in the fishing and logging village of Bella Coola.  Little did she realize how her early surroundings would shape her future career in Environmental Design – the study of how natural, man-made and human environments intersect and impact each other.

First I saw our local fishing industry gradually disappear and then the forestry industry went into decline.  Because of this, I always had an interest in how development relates to people in communities – not only what happens when development comes and creates an economic windfall, but what happens when it leaves.”

Holding a degree in geography, Saunders began working with the provincial government in her hometown consulting with aboriginal people with respect to forestry development. When the industry began its slide and her office closed, she went on to complete a certificate program in Geographic Information System (GIS), used for capturing, storing, analyzing and managing data spatially referenced to the Earth. The data has a variety of uses, including urban planning, resource management, cartography and environmental protection.  

Not long after, Saunders realized that an undergraduate degree in geography was too general for meaningful work in her area. She decided to return to the classroom, enrolling in the Environmental Design professional degree program at the University of Calgary.

“The program interested me as the interface between the people, the place and the activity going on in that place. It’s really all-encompassing, from how to build buildings and how these buildings connect to the urban form and the environment, to the planning aspect which puts people into the equation,” she says.

While working on her degree, Saunders accepted a summer job placement at Calgary-based Nexen Inc., helping to implement a safety environmental management system for the company’s oil sands operations. Now, three years later, Saunders is Nexen’s Program and Planning Advisor, Aboriginal Relations.  

“Working in aboriginal partnerships, I have two main priorities for the year ahead.  The first is a project with a Métis group that is a stakeholder in Nexen’s ongoing Fort McMurray project. They want to build a cultural centre and some commercial development, so I’m working with them to put together a land acquisition strategy to realize their vision.   Secondly, I'm facilitating and maintaining the relationships Nexen has with post-secondary institutions across Western Canada. I administer our financial contributions to their Aboriginal programs and find out who’s out there, who’s doing what and how we could potentially bring them into our organization.”

This aspect of Saunders’ job requires a great deal of travelling as she speaks to students about opportunities in the oil and gas industry.  “It’s good to introduce them to different avenues that might help bridge their education into employment with our company.  At the same time, it helps us to ensure we have a workforce that is inclusive of aboriginal peoples a tall levels of our organization.”

As she talks to the students about the opportunities in the oil & gas industry, she also stresses the importance of staying in school.  Saunders admits that education is a subject close to her own heart.  

“Yes, we would clearly like to steer you towards a career with us, but staying in school is far more critical. Make the step into post-secondary education and see where that takes you.  I wouldn’t be in the same place I am now had I not finished school – or even had I not decided to go back to school to get my master’s degree.  When I was working here as a summer student, I saw people in the industry doing exciting things and I’d catch myself saying, ‘I want to do that too!’ But then I realized I’d have to be patient and finish school knowing that I’d eventually get where I wanted to go.”

As for her own future, Saunders may explore her deep interest in sustainability.  Her recently-completed master’s thesis was on the social implications of the construction workforce on the community of Fort McMurray, where there are approximately 20,000 people living in work camps in the region.  “I’d really like to find a way to make that interest come together with the work that I presently do.  One of the things I like about working at Nexen is that I think would have the freedom to turn that interest into opportunity.”

Saunders has come a long way from quietly observing the world around her to actively designing her own destiny.  "I just started out growing up in a small town with a simple inquiry about the world around me. That inquiry led to getting a good education and progressed into finding a career path."

Jessica advises young people "to keep moving forward because things are not just going to come to you if you’re standing still.  Now that I look back, the measures I took to get where I am today make sense even though at the time, they didn't.  Had I just sat around and done nothing, opportunity would not have come to me. So get out there and make something happen for yourself.”

written by Barbara Chabai