From student to senator

On a journey that began as one of a small number of women in her commerce class, Joan Cowling has always paved her own way forward.

For Alberta School of Business alumna and U of A Senator Joan Cowling (née McLean), ‘61 BCom, enrolling in the commerce program at her hometown university in the late 1950s was an obvious choice. 

“I really love the university – it’s been in my life forever,” she says, noting that both her parents and all eight of her mother’s siblings attended the U of A. 

While Cowling’s strong connection made it natural for her to apply to what was then called the School of Commerce, she did so at a time when it was still rare for women to attend university. Cowling was one of only four women in her graduating class, and she recalls only a handful of women in other faculties, such as Law, Medicine and Engineering at that time. 

“It wasn’t something we dwelled on or talked about; that’s just the way it was,” she reflects. “We’d get support from each other, and our families were supportive.”


As an undergraduate student, Cowling discovered an interest in human resource issues. She also joined the executive of the Commerce Society, where she had to settle for the role of vice president because women weren’t allowed to be president. 

This wasn’t the only time Cowling encountered barriers as a result of her gender. She recalls meeting with employers who were on campus interviewing for positions and being bluntly told they had no interest in hiring her because she would “just go off to get married and have kids.”

“All four of us experienced it,” she says. “There was no conversation about it: we weren’t qualified because we were women.”

Despite these challenges, Cowling spent her years on campus in the midst of supportive classmates and inspirational professors. Her instructors included Hu Harries, the first dean of commerce, who she recalls as being “forward-thinking, innovative and visionary.”

“It was a gift to be at university when he was there,” she says. “It’s a real honour that you get to be among people like him.”

After graduation, Cowling accepted a position as an executive secretary and spent the next six years working for Alberta Medical Carriers Incorporated, a nonprofit organization that insurance carriers were required to join at the time in order to sell medical insurance in the province. Her job was to oversee the 40 medical insurance carriers that were members. She also served as the secretary on their board. 

It was during this time that Cowling and her husband started their family, which eventually grew to include five children. For a time she stopped working to take care of them, but when they started school she became actively involved with the Edmonton Public School Board. (EPSB).

Cowling helped establish the new French Immersion program through an active parent organization and was later elected as a trustee to the EPSB. She served on the board for 12 years, including three terms as chair, during a period of incredible growth and innovation.

This experience also led her to serve on the executive of the Alberta School Boards Association and later the national Canadian School Boards Association, where she served as president. 

When this chapter of her life came to a close, Cowling found herself drawn back to university. This time she relocated to Kingston, Ontario to complete a Master of Industrial Relations at Queen’s University, a program that focused on human resource management and labour relations.

Despite some initial reservations when she realized her peers in the program were the age of her children, Cowling looks back at that year as an “exhilarating experience.” In particular, she was proud to learn that a class project she worked on to develop a human resources entry strategy for the Royal Bank to expand into mainland China was implemented by the bank.

Back in Edmonton, Cowling spent many years running her own consulting company that focused on human resource management before ending her career working in a labour relations position for the provincial government. 

Now, after serving as an active volunteer with many local organizations, Cowling is contributing in her role as a member of the University’s Senate, where she is currently serving her second term. 

“The university is a place where there’s such amazing people,” she says, thinking back to her own days as a student as well as to her more recent experiences. 

Cowling hopes that current and future generations of students will take advantage of everything it has to offer – and in the process, discover unexpected doors opening to them. 

“Explore and see what’s available, and have confidence in the decisions you make,” she urges. “The people here are so incredibly knowledgeable and they have so much to offer. Take advantage of that and you may find out things you never knew were possible.”

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