Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Four female students, all high school classmates, now thriving in engineering at StFX 

February 10th, 2022
L-r, Jillian Ivey, Breagh MacNeil, Katie MacLennan and Ainslie MacDonald

If you were to look at this year’s graduating class of StFX Diploma in Engineering students, you’d notice that four of them have all come from the same small high school on Cape Breton Island, and all four are female students. 

Katie MacLennan, Jillian Ivey, Ainslie MacDonald and Breagh MacNeil all graduated together from Memorial High School in Sydney Mines in 2020 with academic distinction, and now the four will graduate this May from StFX’s two-year engineering diploma.

They all plan to attend Dalhousie University to complete their Bachelor of Engineering degree. 

“Katie, Ainslie, and I have known each other a long time—the three of us went to the same elementary school, and we were close back then too. For junior high school, Katie parted ways and went to a different one than Ainslie and I, where she met Breagh. We all eventually met back up in high school, both through academics, sports, and community clubs,” says Ms. Ivey of Sydney Mines, who plans to take a chemical process engineering degree at Dalhousie after SFX. 

Ms. Ivey says it’s great to see four female students from the same high school taking engineering, and it’s a great to be a part of it too. 

“We’re all strong-minded and determined women, we have worked really hard to get where we are, and we’re all doing really well. I think the four of us are great role models, not only for women in male-dominated classrooms/workspaces, but also to show that you can still have great achievements coming from a rural area.”   

Both in and out of the class, she says she’s lucky to have the others to lean on. “There are times when the work can get overwhelming or when one of us gets a disrespectful remark, but we know we have each other's back. That comfort and reassurance helps us all grow. We all knew each other before StFX but I feel we’ve become a lot closer here.” 

MANY OPPORTUNITIES

Ms. Ivey says early into high school she had teachers notice her critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and one mentioned she should consider engineering. “Initially I kind of blew it off; in my head engineering was laying concrete or building cars, things I had no interest in. But eventually, I did some research and realized there was a lot more to it than that. I think the ultimate reason I chose engineering is because there were so many different opportunities - it didn’t feel like I was stuck in a box of what I had to do once I started school. 

“I chose StFX because I wanted my school to feel like a home away from home. I really love the small campus community. It’s also great to have professors who are so willing to help their students and connect with them. We are so lucky. We’ve even had the opportunity to have really great professors from Cape Breton. It’s incredible to have these people who are role models come from the same place as you.” 

She says StFX has been both really great and really challenging, especially starting and finishing her diploma in a pandemic. “Nonetheless, I think it was the perfect place for me. I could balance my social life and academics how I needed to. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some really great people from diverse backgrounds. I also am in love with the campus. There is nothing better than watching the sunset from Mulroney Hall.”

SCIENCE, PROBLEM SOLVING AND HELPING OUT

Katie MacLennan of Bras d’Or says engineering interested her as it combines her love for science, innovation, problem solving and helping people. “I believe it’s a career that I would get to go to work every day while making an impact and getting to do something I love at that same time, which sounds very rewarding. I chose StFX because of their promotion of leadership, friendly staff and professors, smaller class sizes, and beautiful campus and I have zero regrets about that decision!”

She too thinks it’s great to have four female students from the same school in engineering, typically a male-dominated profession. 

“I think it starts with being encouraged by past teachers in our lives who really helped us focus on our interests without hesitation,” says Ms. MacLennan.

“Although, we do still walk into a classroom and can’t help but notice that engineering continues to be a male-dominated profession. We’ve had multiple conversations about it between ourselves and other women who also look around the classroom and count how many other women are joining them in this experience. We’ve also had the opportunity to be taught by an incredible woman in engineering who has been amazing all around, but in particular with giving us the honest truth about her experience going through this same program in university and about working in this industry. Knowing that I have the support of these and other incredible ladies who have my back adds an extra layer of confidence that I can bring to my work.”

She says it’s also been great because between the four of them, they share a lot of key interests, but also a lot of differing interests as well. “This led to two of us going into mechanical engineering, one going into chemical and one going into electrical, so it’s great to talk to each other because there’s so many different opinions, approaches and skillsets!”

StFX, she says, has been an amazing experience. “Everyone here from the professors, staff and students are all friendly and helpful people. It feels like such a close-knit community and you don’t get that experience at some other universities. It’s easy to tell that StFX feels like a second home to many because the alumni from StFX are clearly very proud to have been educated here and it’s not hard to tell why: StFX feels like one big family.”

After graduating in May, she’ll attend Dalhousie to complete the Bachelor of Engineering with electrical engineering as her discipline. 

INTEREST IN MATH AND SCIENCE

Breagh MacNeil of Sydney Mines says she chose to study engineering because she’s always had an interest in math and science. “I enjoy solving problems and working collaboratively with my peers.

“Having grown up in a family where many members are StFX alumni, including my older sister who graduated from the engineering program five years ago, it was an easy decision to come here. Everyone who came to StFX spoke very highly of their experience here and of the many friends they made.” 

Ms. MacNeil says she believes that having a strong work ethic and dedication to your studies are the only critical things you need to study engineering, therefore your gender should not be seen as an obstacle when pursuing an engineering degree. “There may be barriers, but when you’re passionate about a career path, you can overcome them.”

She says coming to StFX together made for an easy transition from high school to university life, both academically and socially. “As a group we were able to collaborate on many assignments and projects over the last two years. We are able to bounce ideas off each other and are always there to support each other when needed.

“Due to the pandemic, our time at StFX has not been what many would consider the ‘normal’ university experience. However, being here at StFX has provided me the opportunity to meet many new friends, and our shared experiences have been memorable. The small class sizes in our program allows us to build relationships with many of our peers and professors.”

She plans to continue her studies at Dalhousie, completing a degree in mechanical engineering and eventually hopes to pursue a career in the energy industry.

ALWAYS BUILDING, CREATING

Ainslie MacDonald of Georges River who is also taking mechanical engineering says she too was always interested in physics and math in school and growing up she would always be building or creating something, so engineering just made sense. “My sister and mother both went to StFX, and with the pandemic, it was the only university I was interested in that offered in-person classes.” 

“Our year of classmates at Memorial was known for being high achievers. I believe I wouldn’t have done as well as I did in school if I hadn’t of had my peers around me, pushing me to be the best I could. Because of this, it didn’t surprise me too much when I found out we would all be attending the same university and program.”

She says it’s been great being at StFX together. “For me, it has been nice to have familiar faces. With COVID, it was more difficult to make friends in class. Knowing three of them already, made it easier to reach out to others as well. 

“Engineering has a quite demanding schedule, having friends who understand that, and have the same schedule has been very nice. We would eat together frequently between labs and classes, and study together too. 

“When you grow up learning next to people, you start to understand how they think. This allows us to better understand why one of us is struggling with a concept we’ve learnt, and how we can help.” 

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