It’s about 300 miles from the farm where Jessica Vandenberghe grew up in Northern Alberta to her University of Alberta office in the Faculty of Engineering. But as a career path, her journey from isolated hamlet to campus was about as straight as a process flow diagram. She talks about her approach to career pathing—the inspirations, challenges and triumphs—in our latest TARATALK.


TARATALKS GUEST Jessica Vandenberghe shares her career pathing strategies.

Jessica Vandenberghe


Assistant Dean (Outreach) University of Alberta Faculty of Engineering

STEM Diversity Advocate


How did Jessica find her career path?

Jessica’s career path to becoming a woman in engineering could have been quite different. She is Indigenous and of an era where she was part of the “60s scoop” in Canada. This means she was not raised traditionally with her birth Indigenous family and instead was in the foster/adoption system. Her adoptive mom was a new Canadian from Germany who worked a farm in Northern Alberta. “Not a lot of people went to university in my high school,” says Jessica. “A lot went into trades and ran the family farm or worked at the grocery store. Exposure to what we could take at university was limited.” For those who did want to leave the farm, the professional options were: teacher, lawyer and doctor. Jessica was set on becoming a doctor until an engineer visited her grade 11 chemistry class and gave a career talk. “For me that sounded like a much better fit than going into the medical industry,” she recalls. 

How does Jessica stay on her career path?

“Chemical engineering taught me about process and systems thinking,” says Jessica. “Knowledge, capture and transfer are always with me and on my mind.” How does that translate into finding the footing needed to balance mental, emotional, physical and spiritual growth? “It’s a form of life management versus work/life balance,” Jessica explains. But for her, “work/life balance is not a phrase that distills the elusive ideal we all strive for. “Because work is part of your life,” she says – and then enumerates seven ways to achieve that balance while staying on a career path that leads to your dream job.

Double Quote Marks

“In many rooms, I’m the only one of my type – whether it’s female vs male or Indigenous vs non-Indigenous,” explains Jessica. “Overcoming the odds [to become a woman in engineering] comes from a place of courage.


Jessica Vandenberghe
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Jessica’s seven-step career pathing strategies

1. Don’t let life circumstances limit your dreams.

Remember, this STEM star grew up in a hamlet of fewer than 75 people. Farming was, and is, a good way of life but if you want to go beyond the proverbial county line, then be prepared to turn those dreams into reality.

2. Don’t be daunted by the odds. 

This is not some bromide, said reflexively by someone who had social and educational advantages. This comes from the industrial engineering professor who is among the 0.0007% of engineering graduates who identify as Indigenous in Canada. Jessica credits her mother for instilling a strong work ethic and desire for life-long learning. “She also never set limits on us,” adds Jessica.

3. Keep an open mind and explore what’s possible.

Today, Jessica is the Acting Assistant Dean (Outreach) at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta.  When she took her undergraduate and masters’ degrees at U of A, she says she tried as many options as possible from nuclear research, alarm programming for petrochemical companies, maintenance reliability for a pulp and paper company and working on extraction processes for the oil sands. “Through that, I found what fit with me and my personality,” says Jessica.

4. Find mentors in many fields and be a mentor.

Jessica continues to identify leaders she admires and she makes a point to stay in touch. But she has also branched out and has mentors who range from Olympic athletes to senators. And she gives back by mentoring, promising her mentees she’ll put as much into the relationships as they do. “Mentorship is very much like the Indigenous practice of gifting whether you’re giving or receiving; it’s the same feelings that you get and the same personal reward that you get out of it.”

5. Know when it’s time to make a career shift.

Jessica knew when it was time to leave her resource-industry job and pursue opportunities in regulatory fields. She also knew when it was time to leave those regulatory positions to become an Indigenous community consultant working in Indigenous communities. “It’s a combination of things, including a gut feel when it’s time to shift,” she explains. “Sometimes it’s fit with the leader, sometimes the opportunities have run dry, sometimes I feel a calling to contribute in a different way or there comes opportunities that you just can’t resist and it’s time to move… You need the courage and support of those around you to make the leap. And a little humility because a career shift does mean you’re starting from a different place in the ladder of wherever you may be going.”

6. Know how to handle career shifts that happen to you.

“I have been laid off from a job before and that was definitely unexpected,” recalls Jessica. “It stings a little bit. You struggle with imposter syndrome and your value. I speak with a lot of Elders and rely a lot on their advice and I remember one Elder telling me you have to make sure you maintain your support forest around you so that when unexpected changes in life happen, you have support.”

Jessica was laid off from a consultancy position due to a downturn in the economy. This—as is often the case with unexpected change—had its own silver lining. The job had been emotionally draining—due to the heart-wrenching stories she heard from her People within Indigenous communities. She was approached by the University of Alberta and is now doing the work she loves, including engineering education and beyond. The “beyond” include Truth and Reconciliation, Equity, Diversion and Inclusion and K-12 outreach work and more.

7. Know yourself and have a strategy to achieve balance

It’s key that you know what’s important to you, what your passion is and how to achieve balance in your life to achieve your dreams. “I want to show up authentically in the spaces where I am and that my work and life aren’t at odds. Work and career are part of life. It’s a cycle and circle. The key to it is finding balance and balancing your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health – no matter what space you’re in.”

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