Student champions energy sustainability for Indigenous communities

Rupertsland Institute award inspires Métis students to lead

Lindsay Penner - 19 June 2018

Austin Zacharko remembers the first time he saw a row of wind turbines. He was visiting Maui with his family when he stopped to stare at the huge pieces of metal catching the wind to create energy. His fascination with energy production, combined with having plenty of friends and family in the oil industry, eventually led Zacharko to the mechanical engineering program at the University of Alberta.

It wasn't long before he found his calling within the field, connecting his engineering skills with community development. Zacharko, who is Métis, got inspired to learn about his heritage after becoming involved with a few Indigenous student groups on campus, including organizing an Indigenous engineering club.

"Before university, I knew I was Métis, but I didn't know exactly what that meant," he says.

Then he worked for a summer as an engineering assistant with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, which opened his eyes to the energy needs of rural Indigenous communities.

U of A's Métis Scholar Award - made possible by the Rupertsland Institute - has provided Zacharko the time to develop leadership skills and gain experience in Indigenous communities.

"No debt hanging over my head is a huge relief. I can take time for myself, for research and for work with NGOs to make a difference," he says.

A recent gift from the Rupertsland Institute added $1 million to the Métis Education Foundation scholarship endowment, which has supported scholarships for Métis students at the U of A since 2008.

Thanks to his scholarship, Austin had the time to mentor children through Big Brothers, Big Sisters and to help with the annual round dance on campus and a two-day orientation specifically for new First Nations, Métis and Inuit students. This summer, he will work with Engineers Without Borders on Barcamp Ghana, which organizes mini-conferences to bring people together to make a difference in their community. In the fall, he's off to Sydney as part of a research fellowship on climate change.

After he graduates, Zacharko plans to work with Indigenous communities on renewable energy projects and serve as an advocate for their interests. His goal is to support the development of each community's capacity to meet their own energy needs, permanently and sustainably.

"What I have come to know for certain is that the Métis Education Foundation awards ​can ​change lives and maybe even at times save lives," says Shana Dion, assistant dean of First Nations, Metis and Inuit students in the U of A Dean of Students' office. "Many of the recipients have already succeeded as they have volunteered their time and heart to their community​. However - let's be honest - a little money for a student is always welcomed to help them thrive, not simply survive."

Through the Métis Education Foundation, the Rupertsland Institute enhances the self-sufficiency and well-being of Métis in Alberta through quality education, training and research. These awards help Métis students like Zacharko who are enrolled in undergraduate, professional or graduate programs.

"This scholarship fund demonstrates the value that the Rupertsland Institute - and by extension the Métis Nation of Alberta - places on educating Métis youth," says Chris Andersen, dean of the Faculty of Native Studies. "An endowment is literally a gift that keeps on giving, and the Rupertsland Institute has ensured that it can support Métis learners - now and into the future."