Bursary is a permanent reminder of 'a very caring person'

Young equestrian's family helps animal-science students in financial need

Helen Metella - 05 March 2018

The summer she was 17, Sonja Burton was a busy and focused high school graduate. An accomplished amateur equestrian, she was working at an Edmonton Starbucks to pay for boarding her horses, and drove to a stable in Leduc County almost every evening to ride and tend to them.

"Sonja was really looking forward to attending university that fall," said her grandfather, John Burton.

Even as a young child, Sonja took on a lot of responsibilities, he said. When her single mother went back to university, Sonja was just six years old, but by the time she was eight or nine she was ably pitching in around the house while her mother studied, and helping keep her younger brother occupied, said her grandfather. A few years later, she fell in love with the neighbour's horses at her grandparents' acreage. Soon she was diligently working odd jobs at a stable in exchange for her riding lessons and practice time.

"She was a very caring person," Burton said. "She was always helping other kids at the stable; she was a leader at Starbucks."

So when Sonja died in a car accident coming home from the stables in July 2015, her family wanted to honour her memory through students who share her passion for animals. John, his wife Ewa, and Sonja's mom Jennifer established the Sonja Burton Memorial Bursary for animal science students in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences.

Many other family members and friends also contributed to establishing the endowment, and today it is one of the larger endowments available to ALES students.

John and Ewa are very pleased with the way the bursary provides a long-term way of remembering and respecting Sonja. So far, they have seen the bursary in her name awarded to two students who have worked hard to achieve their goals while juggling their limited finances.

"They were both from out of town, and both talked about living frugally and making ends meet," said Burton.

At first, John and Ewa were surprised by how important the financial assistance was to the students, but then he remembered how even a modest amount of extra cash is so hard to come by for students.

Burton earned his BSc in mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta in 1965, but did his MBA in Montreal, where he met Ewa. He vividly remembers collecting pop bottles in order to put aside enough bus fare to visit her and her family each week for Sunday dinner.

"There are obviously lots of alternatives when looking to do good with some money, but education is a very high-value aspect to be supporting with your available funds," said Burton. "The U of A is a good vehicle to realize that."

To celebrate all donors of awards, scholarships and bursaries within the Faculty of ALES, and to give them a chance to meet students who have recently benefited, the ALES Awards take place Sunday March 18 from 2 to 4:30 p.m., at Lister Hall.

See ALES Awards for more information on the event and to register to attend.