Convocation ‘23: Zoe Wagner, BSc Human Ecology – Clothing, Textiles and Material Culture

Donna McKinnon - 20 November 2023


As a mature student, Zoe Wagner felt out of place in the first weeks of her program, but with a willingness to ‘embrace the opportunity to fail’, she quickly overcame her initial trepidations, finding a receptive and welcoming home in human ecology. 

Through the ups and downs of a university education, and the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoe achieved her goals with persistence, a dose of good humour and reaching out for help when needed. 

“I've found the best way to learn is to make an educated guess and take corrections graciously when offered,” Zoe shared.

The Clothing, Textiles and Material Culture program, specifically, provided Zoe the opportunity to explore new avenues that helped define her interests and develop her talents, leading to an unforeseen career path in museum work, which she will pursue after completing her graduate degree in material culture. 

Congratulations Zoe!

What led you to choose your current area of study, and why the U of A for your studies?

I chose to study human ecology at the University of Alberta because of the impressive reputation of the teaching staff here, as well as the department's world-class Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection. My path to human ecology was long and winding but I felt at home almost instantly. The program allowed me to follow my interests in textiles and design while giving me hands-on experience through a practicum at the Royal Alberta Museum here in Edmonton — turns out I love museum work, so human ecology also led me to my ideal career! 

What is one of your favourite memories from your time at the U of A?

My favourite memories from my time at the U of A have come from my remote corner of campus: all the early morning group meetings in GSB, lunch break conversations in the HEB student lounge, cold winter shortcuts through SUB and pilgrimages from ECHA and Tory in those all-too-short 10-minute gaps between classes. The people and places are all intertwined, so walking through campus is like flipping through a photo album. 

Tell us about your favourite professor and/or class.

During my undergrad, I took a series of courses in apparel design and construction — HECOL 254, 354, and 454 — from Vlada Blinova. Although I struggled my way through as an amateur sewist, every three-hour class was a break from the stresses of the "real world": in the lab, all that matters is you and the sewing machine, and the supportive atmosphere keeps you going through the frustration. More than learning to sew, I gained problem-solving skills and a massive appreciation for how my clothes are made. Now, I'm a teaching assistant for the course! 

Did you take on any leadership roles while you were a student? 

In the summer before the final year of my program, I completed an internship with the U of A Museums. Although not a traditional leadership role, the experience forced me out of my comfort zone. I represented both my department and UAM in various tasks and built relationships with both academic and non-academic staff throughout the university community. It was an amazing experience and the involvement with university governance motivated me to run for the Human Ecology Graduate Students' Association executive this semester, where I now serve as the Textile/Clothing and Material Culture Representative. 

Did you face any significant obstacles or challenges during your program?

As a mature student, I came into the program feeling pretty out of place, as my life looks completely different to that of my classmates. I spent nearly ten years in hospitality before deciding to pursue a bachelor's degree, so I thought I was tough enough to handle university — then COVID-19 hit two years into my program. I struggled with losing family and navigating an unexpected personal health issue, not to mention all of the rapid changes and uncertainty at school. I asked for a lot of help to make it through the lowest parts, and ended up with stellar grades in my senior years thanks to my persistence. 

What advice do you have for current and future students?

My advice for students is to embrace the opportunity to fail. Speak up with the wrong answer in class, ask silly questions from your TA, look ridiculous in front of a full lecture hall. Don't be afraid to be wrong! As a student, now is your chance to get things wrong with minimal consequences. I've found the best way to learn is to make an educated guess and take corrections graciously when offered. 

How do you plan on celebrating convocation?

I plan to celebrate convocation by sitting at a table in Dewey's in my full convocation robes, completing readings for that week's seminars! 

What's next after graduation?

In September, I started a Master of Arts in Material Culture here at the U of A. I plan to stick around the Department of Human Ecology as long as they'll have me, then set out on a full-time career in museums.