For military officer, U of A program passes muster

Print story | Email story February 5, 2009 - Edmonton-It would be difficult to tell Mary Ferguson that her arts degree is irrelevant and could impede her chances of finding employ

06 February 2009

February 5, 2009 - Edmonton-It would be difficult to tell Mary Ferguson that her arts degree is irrelevant and could impede her chances of finding employment.

That's because she's already landed her dream job as an officer in the Canadian Forces. What's more, Ferguson believes that the knowledge gained in the Middle Eastern and African Studies program will bode her well as she continues in the military. Ferguson, who has almost 10 years military service, specifically chose the MEAS program in order to advance her career. Previously an aircraft mechanic, she took an opportunity to fulfil a lifelong wish to become an officer through the Canadian Forces' university-training plan for non-commissioned members.

As Ferguson tells it, the inspiration to become an officer came from a close source: her father.

"I remember my dad walking in the door in his uniform when we were posted to Greenwood ( Nova Scotia)," she said. "I knew that was what I really wanted in my life."

While her path to life as a commissioned officer took a rather circuitous route, she does not begrudge starting her career "in the trenches." In her opinion, her time as a non-commissioned officer gave her perspective that will help her take better care of the people under her command.

The Middle Eastern and African Studies program's multidisciplinary aspect is what caught Ferguson's attention. A polyglot, Ferguson learned to speak Farsi and Arabic while attending an international school in India during her youth. Finding a program that allowed her to carry on her studies of these languages was a stroke of luck. Now, with an increased knowledge of culture, history, politics and language of the Middle East, she is intent on working in those regions.

And being able to work with the people in their language and with an enhanced knowledge of their culture is vitally important to her.

"You have to be able to speak in their terms, and I don't mean linguistically, I mean culturally," she said. "You have to understand where they're coming from . . . It's their culture; it's their country."

Ferguson's leadership style seems to be a case of lead by example. According to Middle Eastern and African Studies director Ann MacDougall, it was her drive that was first obvious when she appeared at MacDougall's door with a goal in mind. MacDougall wrote a letter in support of her goals to study at the University of Alberta; two years later, Ferguson was "on ground" and applying herself in the program.

Over the last two years, she has actively participated in many areas of the program. MacDougall notes that Ferguson has been very supportive of other MEAS students and has helped recruit new students at the department's annual meet-and-greet functions. Her outspoken nature, likely borne of her military background, is obvious. MacDougall notes that Ferguson was eager to bring up any concerns about or suggestions for the program. "That was why I asked her to serve on the executive," said MacDougall. "I knew she would be an active and concerned member, not intimidated by being the only undergraduate among faculty members."

This sort of commitment and enthusiasm was what led MacDougall and other instructors to honour Ferguson during the program's annual conference. She is the first student ever to be awarded a certificate of appreciation for her contributions to the program.

Lt-Col Gary Blenkinsop, base commander of the Edmonton Garrison, was invited to the event to witness Ferguson receiving the award. Blenkinsop praised Ferguson's commitment to the program and to her learning, noting that her choice of programs is one that is highly beneficial, given Canada's global military commitments. Blenkinsop noted that her role at the university is, in essence, as an ambassador of the Canadian Forces. He acknowledged her efforts to give back to the academic environment in which she was placed. In Blenkinsop's view, Canadian Forces' members enrolled in university programs have an opportunity to contribute to the learning process.

Blenkinsop said that it is to Ferguson's credit that she recognized and engaged opportunities within the program, adding that her leadership and initiative are of value to both the university and the military.

But Ferguson's learning path will not end when she crosses the stage to pick up her parchment. As a newly-minted second lieutenant, she will embark upon further studies in her military life at Canadian Forces Base Kingston. While she is looking forward to this next stop in her career, she relishes the idea of being able to apply her academic and military experience in a practical setting: Afghanistan.

"My biggest goal is to go on a tour," she said. "I am really hoping to make the last roto (final rotation of Canadian troops in 2011)."

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