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Introducing Jessica Vandenberghe: new Assistant Dean, Community and Culture

April 28, 2023



by Ivan Watson

Jessica Vandenberghe remembers the moment in her high school chemistry class when a guest presenter with an engineering background inspired her to seek a career in the field. “It was grade 11 and I wasn’t sure at that point what I was going to do in the future,“ she recalls. “I was thinking maybe something in the medical field, but after that talk I was so inspired that I decided to go into engineering. It turned out to be a great choice.”

Years later, and with many successful career accomplishments to her name, she hasn’t looked back. She has excelled as a regional and national leader in the engineering field and as an accomplished advocate for Truth and Reconciliation and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives in the STEM fields. Her many strengths encompass expertise in project management, people leadership and business strategy, all with an authentic and compassionate approach to working collaboratively with people.

Vandenberghe was born of the Dene Thá First Nation, is a sixties scoop survivor and was raised by an inclusive German farming family in a small town in rural, northern Alberta.

“My parents played a huge role in being very supportive of everything I’ve done and I never felt limited by what I could do,” she says. “A lot of folks in our community didn’t go to university, it wasn’t super common, but I’ve always really believed in opening doors for myself.”

After high school, she attended Grand Prairie Regional College and later transferred to the University of Alberta, where she completed two degrees in Chemical Engineering (BSc, 2000) and Chemical and Mining Engineering (MSc, 2003).

After graduation, she worked for about a decade in Alberta’s oil sands industry.

“At that time it was still a growing industry and I was attracted to the sheer size of it and the challenge for engineers,” she recalls. “We had the opportunities to really push the limits of the technology, to make things bigger and safer and more environmentally friendly; to develop new standards, and to do research in an area where some of the biggest equipment in the world was being used every day.”

She volunteered extensively for organizations with causes closer to her heart, including The Alberta Women’s Science Network (AWSN), The Canadian Aboriginal Science and Technology Society, and many others. She also worked for more than six years in several Director roles with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA).

“In the end, I felt a calling to give back to my heritage so I started moving into the reconciliation space,” she says, recalling her time working as an Indigenous community consultant directly with different First Nations and Metis groups. “I really saw the true state of affairs while visiting the reserves, helping with governance, navigating land ownership, working on infrastructure programs, project management, grants, water issues and a lot more. It was emotionally heavy work.”

When the pandemic hit, she launched her own consulting company, Guiding Star Consulting, working and walking in a good way with Indigenous peoples and communities and those who want to build meaningful relationships to build strong vibrant communities.

 In 2020, the University of Alberta recruited her as Industrial Professor Indigenous Engineering and as Assistant Dean in Engineering to launch a number of programs in the areas of Truth and Reconciliation, community development, student wellness and EDI.

“There was a lot of outreach and recruitment work and many conversations with prospective students and alumni,” she says about her three years at U of A, both as a professor and administrator. “There were all sort of initiatives and committees I worked on to drive forward many initiatives related to Indigenization and diversity.”

When UVic came calling, she was impressed with the university’s dedication to the values and causes she has worked so hard to advance throughout her career. On April 1, Vandenberghe started her new position as Assistant Dean, Community and Culture in UVic’s Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science.

“I see myself as a bit of a visionary and a connector,” she says. “Bringing people together is a lot of what I do as well as supporting colleagues and student groups with coaching and mentoring and working to ground our work together in reconciliation and equity, diversity and inclusion. Let’s get everybody on the same page and then let’s talk about how we integrate this into everything that we do, because that’s where the real culture shift happens.”

Her first few weeks at UVic have been uniformly positive.

“I’m just so excited to be here and to have the chance to develop and create something that can be leading the country,” she says. “There’s lots of work to do in terms of consultation and engagement, but the culture here is very open and forward-looking and values-based. I’m very excited to be a part of a team that is open to so many possibilities.”