Engineering a first in the Okanagan

When Erin Johnston steps across the stage this June to accept her degree in electrical engineering, she will be part of the first graduating cohort of the School of Engineering at UBC’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna.

“It’s been a really amazing, somewhat unexpected journey,” says Johnston. “I’m really glad I chose to come through this program. The small class sizes were a huge benefit to me, and I built some really great relationships with both classmates and professors.”

A lot of changes have taken place since the School of Engineering was established in 2005, and Johnston has witnessed many of them. The Kelowna native arrived for her first year of studies with a UBC Major Entrance Scholarship of $20,000, and as a student added other awards including the Stantec Scholarship in Engineering, a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Undergraduate Research Award, Canadian Tire A.J. Billes Scholarship, and, most recently, Co-op Student of the Year.

“Definitely I would have to say that co-op education has played a big role in my development,” says Johnston. “When I came to university I wasn’t even sure what stream of engineering I was interested in. I dove in and discovered through co-op education that electrical engineering is where my passion lies.”

Johnston participated in five work terms as an engineering student. They ranged from working with an IT department at an oil mine in Fort McMurray to research-intensive work opportunities in a lab at UBC.

“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting research to be my thing,” says Johnston. “But once I became involved with it, I found I really liked it.”

Johnston had such a great experience working as an undergraduate researcher that she has decided to return this September to the Okanagan campus to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering. Her interest lies in digital design and micro-computers.

“The co-op opportunity was so valuable. You get the experience and really understand what you want to do,” says Johnston, who has acted as an ambassador for the co-op program over the last few years, mentoring her fellow engineering students. “The School of Engineering is able to connect students with engineering professionals in so many disciplines.”

Over the past five years, some of Johnson’s best memories come from the close-knit bonds with faculty and classmates.

In March, Johnston was part of a group of graduates who traveled to Vancouver to receive their Iron Rings.

“In Canada, when you graduate from engineering you get an Iron Ring,” said Johnston, adding that it is a tradition unique to Canada that serves as a reminder for engineers to live by a high standard of professional conduct.

“I know everyone in the graduating class, which is really nice, and it was a very memorable experience to travel down to Vancouver to get our rings—everyone was so excited. Some engineers from companies in Kelowna came down with us to do the presentation.”

Johnston hopes that after her master’s degree she can use the local connections built through the School of Engineering to find work in the Okanagan, and find a way to give back to the community her heart has always called home.

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