Volunteer mentors win UAlberta Advocate Award for supporting students in learning through work

Field supervisors recognized for dedication to helping more than 2,000 students develop skills for diverse careers through Human Ecology Practicum Program.


Human ecology student Paige Clements (left) with field supervisor Ann MacKay-Drobot. MacKay-Drobot is one of nearly 2,000 field supervisors who have collectively earned the 2021 UAlberta Advocate Award for their dedication to serving as volunteer mentors to students in work placements since 1972. (Photo: Supplied)

Abigail Brodhead considers herself a quiet person, shy about striking up conversations and asking questions. So when the COVID-19 pandemic shelved the University of Alberta student’s in-person practicum in the spring of 2020, she was concerned about making a go of it online.

“I worried about how I would take control of my own learning,” said Brodhead, who, like her classmates, needed to complete the mandatory practicum to finish her Bachelor of Science in Human Ecology from the U of A’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences

It was the support of her field supervisor—the person who oversees a student’s on-site workplace experience—that helped Brodhead through her worries and built her confidence.

“She managed to push me out of my comfort zone and I was able to put myself out there and take control of my own learning, and I overcame my discomfort of reaching out to new people and asking questions. I know this skill will greatly benefit me wherever my career takes me.” 

It’s that dedication to U of A students that has earned almost 2,000 field supervisors—since the Human Ecology Practicum Program began in 1972—this year’s UAlberta Advocate Award through the U of A’s Community Connections Awards. The Advocate Award recognizes a member or team from the broader community who has contributed to the betterment of the U of A experience. The recipient’s efforts have enhanced the U of A's reputation and raised its profile with neighbouring communities near and far.

Putting students on diverse career paths

The workplace supervisors—many of them U of A graduates—have been invaluable to the more than 2,000 students they’ve mentored over the last 50 years, said Sherry Ann Chapman, practicum co-ordinator for the program for the Department of Human Ecology.

“Human ecology is an applied science, so our field supervisors are absolutely critical because they are key for the students’ immersion into workplace culture,” Chapman noted. “Field supervisors provide the opportunity for the moments when theory and practice come together for a student. It’s amazing when I do my site visits with a student and their supervisor and I see these ‘aha’ moments realizing they’re seeing a concept they learned in a course being put to use. The supervisors create the space for these learning moments.”

Mentoring students from family science and the study of clothing, textiles and material culture into diverse career paths, the field supervisors show just how versatile a career in human ecology can be, Chapman noted.

“The variety is amazing. The field supervisors include success coaches in schools, community mental health workers, public health officers, community educators, patient advocates, recreational therapists, social workers, textile scientists or engineers, fashion business managers or merchandisers, interior designers, and museum curators and educators.”

The field supervisors make a completely voluntary commitment to help guide the students through 200-hour workplace practicums through which students earn academic credit. Field supervisors help integrate students into their worksites, and mentor and assess them as emerging professionals. 

As co-educators with Chapman, the field supervisors “make a commitment to get to know each student, to be present, to coach them, to ask how they are, what’s happening, and that takes time and energy.”

They show students “what professionalism looks like,” she added. 

“Students are introduced to the norms, rules and responsibilities of the workplace, and they build their confidence to see themselves as professionals. They come to identify with their work site and see themselves as someone with a responsibility to share the work and to learn how to communicate and be part of a team that is sharing a task.”

Fresh perspectives, new ideas

The students also bring something special to a practicum, said interior designer Lori Elms, who’s been a field supervisor with the program for 25 years, mentoring 15 students along the way.

“I always find it interesting and fun to see the perspective of someone who is just graduating; they bring fresh eyes and different ideas to the industry. And with the enthusiasm they bring, it’s fun to work with them on projects, to have someone who is as excited about the job as we are.”

Elms, herself a graduate of what was then the U of A Faculty of Home Economics in 1982, volunteers with the practicum program because it helped give her a head start in her own career.

She did her practicum for a BSc in clothing and textiles with an interior design company and stayed on for seven years before eventually launching her own business. 

“It was a great experience for me, so I thought I’d do it for other students. It was my first exposure to the real world, to take these learnings and put them into real-life solutions, and it also exposed me to the business end of things: how to make contacts, how and where to source materials, how the actual job process works.”

Elms tries to give students who do their practicum with her business “a better understanding of the industry and applying what they’ve learned in school in a confident, saleable way.” 

Having taken on students from several different institutions over the years, Elms added that those from the Human Ecology Practicum Program are the most focused.

“The U of A runs the best practicum program as far as followup with the co-ordinator, and with the students having clear goals with what they want to achieve, which is invaluable for them to get the most out of their time with us.” 

The field supervisors are a caring group of people who embody what human ecology is all about, and richly deserve to be recognized, Chapman said.

“They have this desire to give back. It’s that type of personality that has signed up for this adventure, and they are keen. They like supervising, they see it as a way to help our students into their careers. Our supervisors demonstrate what caring looks like in the real world of work.”

Brodhead, who penned a letter supporting the field supervisors for the award nomination, said her practicum turned out to be a “fantastic experience. I greatly appreciate the work that these supervisors have done for my peers and me in preparing us for the world beyond university.”