2021 William Muir Edwards Citizenship Award Nomination - Kaelyn Nicolson

“My desire to give back has evolved into building an engineering community where everyone feels like they belong and can thrive.”

Donna McKinnon - 01 April 2022


As a non-binary person, Kaelyn Nicolson felt like they had to hide themself to fit in to the engineering community. That isolation, compounded by the pandemic, was exacerbated when they received a scholarship based on their sex assigned at birth, not their gender identity.

After reaching out for advice, Nicolson joined the Diversity in Engineering student group (DivE), and then went to work opening up and acting on conversations around issues related to inclusivity. Nicolson says DivE provided the safety net and launch pad they needed to start the Inclusivity Project, aimed at identifying and addressing these issues.

The first of the actionable goals is an update to the University of Alberta Code of Student Behaviour explicitly outlining expectations for professionalism and respect on campus. To inform this statement, DivE collected 80 testimonials from engineering students who shared their experiences of exclusionary treatment, including rudeness, disrespect and harassment because of their identity. Should this initiative reach its goal, it will mean a university-wide change.

The second goal was the inclusion of a syllabus statement in all Faculty of Engineering course syllabi outlining expectations of professional behaviour and respect in the classroom. This syllabus statement was implemented in the Fall 2021 term.

The final goal of the Inclusivity Project, Nicolson explains, is education. To help improve conditions across the entire engineering community, DivE members and discipline club executives from civil, electrical, mechanical, first year, materials engineering and the engineering students society are educating students, faculty and staff about diversity, inclusive language (including asking everyone to use pronouns in their email signatures and zoom meetings) and other topics through a poster campaign, outreach activities, information sessions, and the sharing of resources.

“As this project gained momentum, I realized these initial small steps have grown into big actions that can help change the engineering community for the better,” says Nicolson.


Nicole Wilson, Postdoctoral Fellow, Culture, Engagement, and Inclusion in Engineering, notes that Nicolson did the bulk of this work while simultaneously carrying a full course load, online course work, student leadership roles, and coping with the pandemic. “Kaelyn demonstrated leadership vulnerability (as defined by Brené Brown) by taking a risk to share a personal story with faculty and university leadership with the goal of learning and improvement.”

In their role as co-president of the Materials Engineering Students’ Society (MESS), Nicolson learned about other situations where students had experienced harassment in the online learning environment, and so the MESS team added an inclusivity statement and land acknowledgement to the top of the weekly newsletter, including a weekly tip on how to be a better peer, reminding students to be respectful while providing small actions everyone can take to make materials engineering more inclusive.

Since implementing these changes, Nicolson says, other engineering student groups have started including similar statements in their own newsletters.

In 2021, Nicolson received the Leaders in Equality Award of Distinction - Persons Case Scholarship from the Government of Alberta for their work to reduce gender discrimination in the engineering community.

“My desire to give back has evolved into building an engineering community where everyone feels like they belong and can thrive,” says Nicolson. “My work with the Inclusivity Project is the first stepping stone on this path, and my hope is the continuation and growth of this project into a movement of change that surpasses the U of A and works with other organizations to change the engineering community at large.”

Named in honour of the Faculty of Engineering’s founding professor, the William Muir Edwards Citizenship Award recognizes Engineering at Alberta undergraduate students who have made exceptional contributions to society. It’s a celebration of citizenship and of engineering students who go to extraordinary lengths to make our world a better place. Special thanks to the David Morris Family Foundation for supporting our students and making the William Muir Edwards Citizenship Awards possible.

Do you know an undergraduate student whose volunteerism, contributions, and efforts, both on-campus and off-campus, work to make the world a better place? Learn more about the nomination process here.