Alumna gives back to Augustana to honour mentor

Community-building efforts link award recipient and donor

Keri Sweetman - 14 March 2024

Amy Loonen
Augustana alumna Amy Loonen. (Photo: supplied).

Getting a university degree is about more than classroom learning. It’s about getting involved in campus life, developing relationships and building a community – one that often lasts well beyond graduation. 

For Augustana graduate Amy Loonen, ’12 BSc, the community she built during her involvement in the faculty’s Residence Life program was the defining feature of her undergraduate years. “If I hadn’t been involved in Res Life, if I hadn’t met all those people, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Loonen, now a registered nurse and mother of three in Wainwright, Alta.

She continues her connection to Augustana by donating monthly to the Mark Chytracek Endowment for Leadership and Community Engagement, which supports leadership, residence and community engagement activities at Augustana. The award funded through this endowment has special meaning for Loonen because it honours the faculty’s former director of student and residence services, who had a profound impact on both Loonen and her now-husband Neil. The fund was established after Chytracek died suddenly in 2015.

“Mark was definitely a big part of our story,” says Loonen, who came to Augustana from Vancouver and had no family nearby. “Having somebody to talk to and support me through my university years – that’s who Mark was.” And her four-year involvement with the residence program — first as a resident assistant and then as a hall co-ordinator — taught her skills she still uses. “It taught me about balance, and about dealing with people; how to listen to two sides, how to be open-minded, how to deal with different populations.”

Because her participation in the residence program made such a difference to her university life, “I am hoping I can do that for somebody else” by donating to the Chytracek endowment. 

The 2023 award recipient was Robel Ng’ong’a, ’23 BMgt, an international student from Kenya. Ng’ong’a graduated last June and was involved in student government, as well as tutoring other students. 

Ng’ong’a began his Augustana studies in the fall of 2019, having chosen the faculty because it offered the bachelor of management program he wanted, along with good financial incentives. Moving from Nairobi, a city of five million people, to Camrose, with fewer than 20,000 people, was a “drastic change,” he says. But he describes his time at Augustana as a rich experience. “Even though it was a smaller campus environment, I didn’t feel like I was lacking anything. I still met students from all across the globe.”

Robel Ng'ong'a
Augustana alumnus Robel Ng'ong'a. (Photo: John Ulan).

“And because of the size of the campus, it made it very simple to interact with people on a daily basis and learn different ways of doing things.”

Ng’ong’a got involved with student government in his first year, eventually becoming president of the Augustana Students’ Association in 2021-22. Among the initiatives he was involved in was the Zero Textbook Cost program, spearheaded by the U of A Students’ Union, to encourage professors and lecturers to allow their students to use free and open education resources rather than expensive textbooks. With Ng’ong’a’s encouragement, faculty at Augustana were among the highest adopters of the program across the U of A.

Ng’ong’a now works in the waterworks industry, and is using the endowment money as a stepping stone to achieving his goal of setting up a non-profit organization in Kenya to help rural students continue their education while also financially supporting their families. 

Work on the project is still in the initial stages and he’s just registered the non-profit, which he’s calling Together Africa, in Kenya. “I’ve always wanted to find ways to give back to the community I have back home and to the communities I meet here.”