Summit – Alumni gone grad
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Alumni gone grad

Words by Valerie Berenyi

Meet six graduates who’ve taken their degrees from Mount Royal University into post-graduate programs in Calgary, across Canada and around the globe. They honed their curiosity, their skills and their confidence at MRU. And then, they set off, hungry for new challenges.

Donna Atkinson Smith

Social Work Diploma ― 2014

Donna Atkinson Smith opted to finish her post-secondary education later in life, after raising a family and working as a restaurateur, substitute teacher and manager at Williams-Sonoma.

But once Smith set her sights on becoming a mental-health therapist, she completed a diploma, a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in an astonishing four and a half years.

This intense education began when she took an Addiction Certification program at Mount Royal University in the fall of 2011. While completing that program, she was accepted into MRU’s Social Work diploma program, which she finished in 2014.

Even before graduating from MRU, Smith was enrolled in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Social Work. She powered through her bachelor’s degree in eight months. And — once again — she was accepted into U of C’s Clinical Social Work Practice program before she’d graduated with her bachelor’s.

“During my post-high school years and while I was raising a family, I was always taking courses for credit, regardless of where I was living,” says Smith, who grew up in Colorado. “Those banked credits transferred into my diploma and degrees and allowed me to accelerate through the programs.”

"Those banked credits transferred into my diploma and degrees and allowed me to accelerate through the programs."

She’s often asked why she opted to do a social work diploma first, rather than go straight into a bachelor’s degree. “For me, it was an important strategy to start my educational journey by connecting with faculty and students on a more personal level rather than sitting in large, impersonal lecture rooms filled with people.”

Yasmin Dean, PhD and chair of the Department of Child Studies and Social Work at MRU, first met Smith in her Introduction to Social Work class. “Donna has a quiet aura of peace around her that I could not help but notice. Despite her considerable life and academic knowledge, she came into each class with a clear desire to learn, demonstrating an intellectual curiosity that I knew would keep her in school long past the achievement of the Social Work diploma.”

Their relationship solidified during a 2014 field school to India. “Chronologically, Donna was the oldest person (on the trip, but) in personality, she was ageless.” There, Smith did a research project using art to explore identity with teens from an ashram. She presented her work at an international social work conference in Melbourne, Australia.

Now a mental-health therapist in private practice, she specializes in treating women who’ve experienced trauma. Smith is also certified in the Daring Way and Rising Strong curriculums, which she offers in group workshops and uses in her counselling practice.

She loves to travel, explore Canada, cook with her children and grandchildren and read, especially books about people’s struggles for social justice.

Corrie Butler

Bachelor of Communication — Information Design (2014)

Corrie Butler’s post-secondary experience has taken her from Calgary to Kenya, with some key stops along the way.

Now a communications delegate with the International Committee of the Red Cross for the Africa (based in Kenya), Butler’s specialty is in humanitarian and international development communications, which involves reporting during crises and emergencies.

Her journey began when she was finishing her last year of studies at MRU. At the time, she was taking her final few classes while working full time for the Canadian Red Cross in Calgary, for which she had volunteered throughout her degree. Her role was a broad strategic communications and public relations position, and she realized what her life’s work might become.

To build her expertise and knowledge, and combine those with her passion for humanitarian work, Butler completed a “very practical” one-year Master of Arts ― International Public Relations and Global Communications Management at Cardiff University in Wales in 2015.

Her MRU experience prepared her well for grad school and work. “MRU has a fantastic marriage of theory and practice. Having been in both the business and communications schools, the experience particularly strengthened skills found in any work environment,” Butler says.

"MRU has a fantastic marriage of theory and practice. Having been in both the business and communications schools, the experience particularly strengthened skills found in any work environment."

She lists working in teams (often with challenging personalities), managing and implementing projects under tight deadlines and — most importantly in her field — strategic and out-of-the-box thinking as talents she was “able to transfer with ease into my master's degree.”

Post-grad, she landed a job in Johannesburg with UNESCO as a regional communications consultant on an HIV and health-education team in east and southern Africa. On its heels came an assignment as a communications consultant with the United Nation Population Fund, first in South Africa and then working for the Pakistan office remotely.

Now based in Nairobi, Butler spends little time in the bustling city because her work takes her to places such as Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan, supporting the Red Cross response to emergency food insecurity.

In her downtime, she likes to get out into nature and explore the unique landscapes of her international postings. She also enjoys new and interesting foods. “My husband and I even keep track of the weird food we've tried, especially the meat, including water beetles, snakes and mopane worms.”

When Butler comes to see her family in Alberta, there are two places that she describes as “absolute heaven:” in the mountains around Canmore, hiking with friends and family, and on her mother's acreage outside of Cochrane, where she rides her horse, Pepsi, which she’s had since she was 13.

Paula Larsson

Bachelor of Arts — Anthropology (Honours) and History (Honours) (2013)

Some might be content with a dual major, but when Paula Larsson graduated from Mount Royal University her appetite for higher education had only been whetted.

“I love learning and I knew that there was so much more I could do with my research,” says Larsson, who studies the history of medicine as it relates to the treatment of minorities in Canada.

She enrolled in the Master of Arts — History program at the University of Calgary, where she investigated health and healthcare in Alberta’s residential schools. “The narrative of progress is only one version of this history and I made it my goal to uncover the other perspectives — told by patients in psychiatric institutions, students in residential schools and victims of Canada's eugenics sterilization programs,” Larsson says.

“These stories need to be told and I’ve continued my schooling so that I am equipped to help tell them.”

Her second master's degree was in medical anthropology at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. She is now pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy — History at the same institution. Her focus is on the history of vaccination policy in Canada and investigating the origins of why minorities still fear getting vaccinated — a wariness that can compromise their health.

"In a small classroom, professors were approachable and supportive. They treated you with respect and equality in a way I have yet to see at any other university."

“Canada's public health policies have historically been highly influenced by the eugenics movement, and certain assumptions pertaining to racial differences have been a dominating factor in the ideology behind policy,” she explains.

She hopes her research will give patients and doctors new, more productive ways to discuss vaccination.


MRU laid the groundwork for her studies, Larsson says. Beyond learning how to research and write at her alma mater, “I learned to take myself seriously and to have respect for my personal beliefs and goals.”

“In a small classroom, professors were approachable and supportive. They treated you with respect and equality in a way I have yet to see at any other university,” she says. This gave her a sense of control, confidence and determination when she started her graduate studies, an advantage over her colleagues.

“Paula is a great scholar and remarkable person,” says Joe Anderson, PhD and professor of history at MRU. “She not only has excellent academic skills — among the best I've encountered in all my years of teaching — but she also shows great humanity.”

A full-time student who admits to being obsessive about books and croquet, during the summer Larsson works as a tour guide in the ancient city of Oxford. Inspiring visitors by telling stories of the past is “incredibly rewarding,” she says.

“I know that when I finish (my studies), I will want to continue to be an engaged historian so that I can keep using history to inspire others.”

Geoff Schoenberg

Bachelor of Applied Business and Entrepreneurship – Sport and Recreation (2007)

After graduating from Mount Royal University in 2007, Geoff Schoenberg worked for a few years in the sport industry for which he was trained. He quickly realized that while his degree was a “great foundation,” he needed either a background as a former elite athlete (which he didn’t have), or a graduate degree to become a senior leader in the industry.

Schoenberg opted to do his master’s degree at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia — one of the best sport management programs in the world. There, he became passionate about research and wanted to do more. When he finished his master’s in 2011, he started pursuing PhD options and wound up at Griffith University in Queensland with a great scholarship.

He started his PhD in 2012 and completed it in four years — making him the first MRU graduate to complete a doctorate in sport management.

Schoenberg says the smaller classes at Mount Royal allowed him to feel more comfortable around faculty members, a bonus at grad school. “At both Deakin University and Griffith University, research students are integrated into the faculty through teaching roles and office space,” Schoenberg says, adding “I wasn’t too intimidated by those interactions.”

"Our students will be referring to his research and programs for years to come, and he has set a very high bar for alumni that follow in his footsteps."

Professor David Legg, PhD and chair of the Department of Health and Physical Education, was Schoenberg’s mentor at MRU. “Geoff is already — at a relatively young age — an academic and person of meaning and significance. Our students will be referring to his research and programs for years to come, and he has set a very high bar for alumni that follow in his footsteps,” Legg says.

“I am humbled and proud to be called his mentor, but he has likely taught me more than I ever taught him.”

Schoenberg is now a research fellow based in the Centre for Sport Research at Deakin University and a member of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne. As a member of the New Generation Network of postdoctoral scholars, his research focuses on sport governance, particularly that of the board of directors (a.k.a. executive committees) for India’s national sport organizations. He visits India three or four times a year and plans to partner with the country’s National Sports Federation on a governance reform research project.

Sport governance, while not always a hot topic, is critical to the success of any organization. “If the board is negligent in providing oversight or doesn’t offer any strategic direction, the organization will struggle.”

When he’s not at work, Geoff can be found playing with his border collie Bella, doing yoga, running, “resting after injuring myself running” or checking out some of the great sports on offer in Melbourne.” He’s also a fan of board games, Toastmasters and loves that his work allows him to travel the world.

Brandon Shokoples

Bachelor of Science — Health Science (2017)

Once someone zeroes in on their life’s work, there’s no stopping them. That’s the case with Brandon Shokoples, who was captivated by how the body works in a Grade 12 biology class in his hometown of Drayton Valley.

“I always knew I’d go on and pursue a career in medical research or in medicine,” says Shokoples. Mere months after graduating from MRU, he was already immersed in a Master of Science ― Experimental Medicine at McGill University.

His time at MRU helped to prepare him for grad school because he had opportunities to do high-level research with professors, he says. During his fourth year, Shokoples worked with chemistry professor Brett McCollum, PhD, on the use of online collaborative learning assignments in organic chemistry. They collected data on the student experience during the project and Shokoples presented their findings to the Canadian Society for Chemistry Conference this past summer.

McCollum says Shokoples excelled as a student, as a peer leader and as a student research partner. “Beyond earning top grades, Brandon engaged with his peers on an academic and personal basis. He builds community and celebrates success in others. Without intention, Brandon lived MRU’s brand. He helped others feel that they belong.”

"One of the biggest things MRU has going for it is its small classes, which foster an environment of working with peers. You’re not just in it for yourself."

For his part, Shokoples adds that Mount Royal gave him an opportunity “to peek behind the curtain, to see what the next step in academia would be like,” explaining that he got a taste of working with a supervisor, applying for funding, presenting research and collaborating with others.

“One of the biggest things MRU has going for it is its small classes, which foster an environment of working with peers,” he says. “You’re not just in it for yourself. I’m now in a big lab (at McGill), so I have to work with others.”

He’s adjusting to life at grad school and a new campus, where study space is at a premium and he commutes more. “It’s totally different. I have one class for two hours a week.” Otherwise, he’s at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital, which is affiliated with McGill. His supervisor is a cardiovascular surgeon at the hospital.

As a graduate student researcher, Shokoples is investigating the role of purinergic receptors in activating the immune system and initiating the vascular remodelling and inflammation associated with chronic hypertension. In layperson’s terms, that means studying how high blood pressure activates the immune system, triggering inflammation and causing vascular damage.

When he’s not in the lab, Shokoples loves to explore Montreal and its surrounding mountains, take in the city’s 375-year-old culture, enjoy its many restaurants and practice his French.

Julia Wenzel

Bachelor of Child Studies ― Child and Youth Care Counselling (2016)

A former fitness trainer, Julia Wenzel does “a lot” of yoga, works out in the gym and spends precious time with family to keep herself in peak mental and physical shape while going through the rigours of grad school.

Wenzel was accepted into the Master of Counselling Psychology program at the University of Calgary in September 2017 after completing her undergrad at Mount Royal. While waiting to hear of her acceptance, she did an extra year of psychology and Indigenous history courses at MRU.

The U of C program involves two years of course work and a one-year practicum. The full-time program is tough, admits Wenzel, who juggles grad school with a full-time job at McMan Youth Family and Community Services Association, providing families with intensive, in-home parenting skills and counselling. Plus, she is in a newly blended family with three children.

Nevertheless, her focus is razor-sharp. “I went into MRU wanting to be a counsellor and have my own private practice. It’s been my end goal ever since.” Trauma — from individual to collective — is her academic interest.

She says MRU gave her real-life, community experience. In third year, she was involved in a capstone course that helped the Calgary Board of Education develop an Indigenous school that opened in 2015.

"I went into MRU wanting to be a counsellor and have my own private practice. It’s been my end goal ever since."

“I also had amazing teachers at MRU who set me up for success,” says Wenzel, singling out professor Patricia Kostouros, PhD, for whom she was a research assistant. Together, they published an article in the journal Traumatology about post-secondary students being exposed to depictions of suffering in a sociology of disaster course.

“I learned a lot from Pat: how to be professional but also true to myself and find my own way as a counsellor. I learned about research, how to develop my writing skills and what journals are looking for. She also steered me to grad programs that meshed with my interests.”


Kostouros met Wenzel in 2013 when she was completing the Child and Youth Care Counsellor diploma before entering the degree program.

“She was keen to learn and often talked about the children and youth with whom she would be working with deep concern and compassion,” Kostouros says, adding that Wenzel was always well-prepared for classes and engaged in learning.

“When I had an opportunity to hire a research assistant, I thought of her immediately. Julia was in her last year of the degree, I knew she had some interest in grad school and had her own research idea. It was a perfect opportunity to prepare her for graduate research, work with a top-notch student and gain insights into the topic we were studying.”

In the very little free time she has, Wenzel loves being out in nature. “Whether I am hiking, gardening, or simply reading, I find being outside very calming and strive to spend as much time exploring outdoors as I can. I also spend a lot of time doing any kind of physical activity ― particularly yoga.”

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