Convocation ‘22: Jolene Borrelli, BEng, Materials Engineering Co-op

Donna McKinnon - 06 June 2022

Community builder, life-long learner

Community building is a driving force in Jolene Borrelli’s life. When she began the materials engineering co-op program as a mature student, life and work experiences set her apart from her fellow classmates. Some days were a struggle, she admits, but Jolene persisted, eventually finding and building a community of support where her experiences not only proved to be a catalyst for a new and inclusive venture, it also gave her a renewed sense of belonging.

In 2019, frustrated with the male-dominated engineering industry, Jolene, along with fellow student and friend Mackenzi Johnston, launched The Red Bench, a space for women and individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community to learn the basics of welding and metal work in a safe and welcoming environment.

Throughout her journey, Jolene has kept the big picture front and centre. It’s not just about academics, she says, but finding ways to connect, to lead and mentor, and most especially, to create opportunities for meaningful experiences where not only she, but others can succeed.

Congratulations Jolene!

What led you to pick the U of A for your studies?
I had been travelling abroad for many years and yearned to return to academic studies. Part of the plan to study again was being closer to my grandparents and other family members who live in Edmonton and BC. As an Edmonton native myself, the University of Alberta was a logical choice.

What is one of your favourite memories from your time at the U of A?
Meeting Aleeza Batool and Mackenzi Johnston, my close friends and fellow materials engineering students.

Did you take on any leadership roles while you were a student?
I co-founded and am the president of The Red Bench, a shop space that provides women and underrepresented genders with tools, equipment, and consumables to develop and evolve their skills in welding and metalworking. Welding is a fundamental trade to Alberta which offers good paying, reliable employment, financial independence, and transferable technical skills. However, only ~5% of individuals in the welding industry are women. I am determined to change this number and ensure that women are accepted and represented in the trades.

Did you face any significant obstacles or challenges during your program?
I am a mature student who lives independently and is responsible for supporting myself financially. It was a struggle to meet the responsibilities of daily life, such as managing my own home and ensuring that I had the funds necessary to continue studying. I was able to supplement the savings I had accumulated prior to studying that I allocated for university by applying for scholarships and awards. But my daily life, with the combined pressures of home and school, never became easier! A struggle I faced as a mature student was relating to my classmates due to the age difference. However, I met some very wonderful people and found my role as a mentor which gave me purpose and a sense of belonging.

What advice do you have for current and future students?
GPA is only a number. It does not reflect anything about your intellect, your personality, your work ethic, your ability to lead, your self-awareness, your self-growth, or your contributions to the community. Do not focus entirely on your studies. Focus on making connections with other students and building relationships with your professors as well as those in industry who are connected to the university. Network and find mentors. Focus on applying what you learn in the classroom in a student group or personal side project — experiment and find the deeper meaning behind the classroom concepts. Focus on helping others and making the world a better place — be a leader in your community. These are the important things that make you stand out.

Almost anyone can achieve a high GPA if they put their mind to it and it may help you while in university. But building a strong network, having mentors who you can rely on, experimenting and having a deeper connection to your studies, and being a community leader will not only help you while in university but will continue to bring you professional and personal success for the rest of your life.

How do you plan on celebrating convocation?
I will celebrate by enjoying time with my loved ones and delighting in a decadent feast.

What's next after graduation?
I will start my career as a materials engineer in industry and continue to grow The Red Bench while advocating for the representation of women in trades and technology. I am looking forward to building upon my own technical skill set and growing as a person, mentor, and leader.

Related: Student-run welding workshop gives women and LGBTQIA+ individuals a maker space of their own