Celebrating Dal's Top Co-op Students of the Year

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Posted by Allison Auld, Kaitlin Burek and William Young on July 20, 2020
In a photo taken prior to the pandemic, Dal's top co-op students of the year (left to right): Gayathri Ponneri, Nicole LeRoux, Kara Feeley, Laure Nolte, Alicia Wong. Missing from photo: Kristen Bartmann. (Danny Abriel photos)
In a photo taken prior to the pandemic, Dal's top co-op students of the year (left to right): Gayathri Ponneri, Nicole LeRoux, Kara Feeley, Laure Nolte, Alicia Wong. Missing from photo: Kristen Bartmann. (Danny Abriel photos)

This past March would have marked the fourth annual Dalhousie Top Co-op Awards — a celebration of the successes of the over 2,000 Dal students who embark on co-op and internships each year and the exceptional contributions of the many employers who hire them.

Though it won’t be possible to gather in person for some time, it’s still important that we celebrate the winners of this year’s Top Co-op Students of the Year and acknowledge their hard work and achievement.

To qualify as Top Co-op Student of the Year, a judging panel (comprised of representatives from faculty, staff, and students) assessed the merits of the students, who, in addition to submitting a letter of support from their co-op employer and a short essay demonstrating the value of co-op, must have received at least one outstanding performance appraisal. Top Co-op Students of the Year each receive a monetary prize of $500, in recognition of their success and positive contribution to the co-op program. 

Get to know the six outstanding students selected to receive this year’s award:

Gayathri Ponneri, Bachelor of Science

When speaking with Bachelor of Science student Gayathri Ponneri about her journey as a Co-op Student, one word quickly stands out: self-assured. Prior to her time at Dalhousie and the better part of first year, she was quite unsure about the what the future held. It wasn’t until second year, where she heard about the Science Co-op program offered at Dalhousie University. For her, [co-op] "was an amazing opportunity to really explore the possibilities that come out of a major in biology.”

Now, five years later, her “leap of faith” has given her “so much experience” and several other technical skills.

“From a young age I had always been intrigued by science and especially biology”, says Gayathri. “Understanding how living things functioned at a fundamental level always fascinated me”. 

Although, her love of science and biology was clear, she was unsure of what her career options were. Gayathri shared that she used to believe that her undergrad degree in biology would not land her a proper career without an additional graduate or masters program and deciding what to do after a masters was a whole another issue.

“Over my work terms as a co-op student, I was able to explore potential career options and moreover build my network. Without this experience, I would not have gotten my foot in the door with potential future employers," says Gayathri. 

In the process of gaining experience in two labs over three work terms where she studied everything from cancer vaccines to pain management, Gayathri reflects on finding skills she didn’t even realize she had. 

She also developed a likeness to working with her hands and was quite “proficient with tasks that required delicate dexterity” which began her interest in dentistry. Most importantly, her experiences with delicate and precise handling in her labs (such as extracting nerve tissue from rats), led her to recognizing her two true passions – dentistry and research.

In Gayathri’s words, “with this experience, I was indeed able to find my calling, and I am quite confident in my future in dentistry. This experience has given me confidence in myself and my skills to thrive in a dental field due to the dexterity skills and experience I have gained throughout my work terms.”  

With co-op work terms behind her and a clear path in front of her, Gayathri was looking forward to graduating this past spring so that she could begin to apply her experience and “scientific thinking” to a new career in dentistry. (Kaitlin Burek)

Alicia Wong, Bachelor of Computer Science

When Alicia Wong stepped into her first-year computer science class nearly four years ago, it didn’t take long for her to notice the obvious. 

As just one of “a handful” of female-identifying students in a classroom of more than 100 bright-eyed undergrads, she couldn’t have possibly known at the time how this experience would go on to impact her future involvement in inclusion and the need to change a culture already on the precipice of a major shift.

Alicia, who describes herself as an analytical and systematic thinker with a love for math and technology, joined the Dalhousie Women in Information Technology Society (Dal WITS) during her first year in the program. In her second year, she and a few friends decided to establish a peer mentorship program to help support female-identifying students within the faculty.

The new program matched first year students with those in upper years, providing them with support to answer the questions and concerns a junior student might have. From help with course selection, networking, and co-op information, the program acted as a bridge between the faculty and students, addressing common concerns unique to new students.

For the past two years, Alicia has served as the president of Dal WITS, and has worked with students and other leaders within the university to address cultural changes within the faculty. The society had existed for many years, but when the institutional priorities shifted to closing the gender gap, Alicia says the society grew exponentially.

“We all need to recognize and bring awareness to ending the gender gap,” she said, highlighting the fact that the society’s membership is not exclusive to women. 

“The goal is to empower women. Regardless of gender, everyone has a part to play when it comes to promoting inclusion.”

Further to this work, Alicia found personal motivation throughout her undergraduate experience by participating in the co-op program. Knowing that classroom learning is just one facet of the total educational experience, Alicia says chose to come to Dal specifically for the co-op program.

“Co-op was something I was looking for when I was applying to universities. It’s a great way to gain experience while in school.” 

Alicia said her work term experiences also provided motivation and assurance in knowing that she was on the right path, and that computer science was, in fact, for her.

With no technical work experience prior to her first co-op job, Alicia shares that the experience was a big leap from the limited work experience she’d had at that point. And further to that, her work term experiences provided motivation and assurance that she had chosen the right career path. 

“It’s given me so many skills. Co-op allows you to try different jobs and discover what you are really passionate about. It provides you with so many options before you graduate and have to start making more significant career decisions.”

Spending all three of her co-op work terms with Lockheed Martin Canada allowed Alicia to experience different functions and the options available to her within one organization, and the experience had a positive impact on her studies, too.

“I felt like a genuine member of the team, and they would take time to teach me and help me work through my assigned tasks. There was always a focus on learning which allowed me to take this new knowledge back with me to school and apply it in my classes.”

Alicia says that winning Top Co-op Student of the Year for her faculty has proven to her the benefit of hard work. “It’s recognition for those of us who are trying our best instead of those who are at the top. Although I came into the program with no prior Computer Science experience, I constantly tried to do my best and did not let these challenges hold me back. This award proves that hard work and perseverance are awarded.”

As Alicia looks forward to all that’s ahead now that she’s graduating this fall, she’s certain that her co-op experience will give her an advantage. 

“Co-op has provided me with so much real life experience that I can take with me as I begin my career. It has given me added confidence in my abilities and additional motivation to continue to work hard and keep learning, wherever my future takes me.” (Allison Auld)

Nicole LeRoux, Bachelor of Engineering

If there’s one word that defines the efforts of Nicole LeRoux in her university career, it would be “passion.” It was a passion for science and mathematics in high school that led to her studying Civil Engineering at Dalhousie and it was the passion she found there for hydrogeology and the study of groundwater that propelled her to become one of 2020’s Top Co-op Students.

Nicole was initially drawn to the strong math component of Dalhousie’s Civil Engineering program and she also wanted to gain experience in structural engineering by enrolling in the program. However, during her time as a research assistant and lab manager in the Dalhousie Groundwater Lab under the supervision of Dr. Barret Kurylyk, an interest was sparked that Nicole says caused her to take “a 180-degree turn” in her professional interests. This change of interest is why she switched to the “Earth and Environment” option of the Civil Engineering program, and is also a big reason why she will be pursuing a Master of Applied Science now that her undergraduate degree is behind her. 

Her work in the lab led to Nicole winning an international research award to present her summer research work, which focused on designing, programming, and building new sensors to measure coastal porewater fluxes at the Geological Society of America in Phoenix, Arizona. She also got the chance to travel to Denver, Colorado after receiving a competitive MEOPAR Training Award to learn the theory and operation of electromagnetic geophysical instruments. Even at an early stage, Nicole is already making waves.

It has not always been an easy road for Nicole in achieving her many diplomas and awards. Nicole’s time is split between part time work in the Groundwater Lab, 6 full time courses per semester, and the time required of her from awards and conferences. Although she admits that her social life is much smaller as a result, Nicole says that the co-op experience “has taught me valuable lessons as to where hard work takes you and for that I am thankful.” Nicole has found inspiration along the way from her mother and father: Nicole is a first-generation student in her family and her parents are extremely supportive of all of her endeavours and are “part of the reason I’ve been so successful,” says Nicole. 

Nicole initially entered Dalhousie’s co-op program to improve her interview and communication skills, since she was somewhat shy entering university. Now, on the cusp of gaining her bachelor’s degree, she looks back on her decision fondly as it helped her find out what she wants to do in life. The Top Co-op Award “re-emphasizes that I’m in the right field,” says Nicole. (William Young)

Kara Feeley, Bachelor of Commerce

When it comes to her work, it isn’t enough for Kara Feeley to simply do what’s expected; rather, she has demonstrated throughout her time with Dalhousie that she is not satisfied unless she has made a difference no matter where she is.

Kara has spent much of her university career in co-op and internship opportunities throughout Ontario. Most recently, she worked for KPMG as a management consultant within the Finance Strategy and Transformation service line. Kara seamlessly integrated into the team, and earned the role of lead for the general ledger conversion process for her project, during which she acted as the go-to between business and technical teams. With her commendable maturity and critical thinking skills she managed a team of three consultant interns who reported directly to her. Even after she returned to school, she worked part-time on her project and executed all her responsibilities, including training new consultant interns to replace her role, while continuing to support the team and monitor the end of the project. As quoted by her manager: "Kara set a gold standard in their mind for Dalhousie students and they can’t wait to have her back as a permanent team member." 

Other co-op opportunities have found her at RBC Capital Markets and George Weston Limited. At RBC Capital Markets, Kara worked as an Analyst for Strategy and Business Transformation, assisting in the development and evaluation of strategic plans and projects through analysis, research, and preparation of presentations. While working for George Weston Limited, Kara worked in Treasury and divided her time between the Foreign Exchange, PC Bank, Capital Markets, and Commodity divisions. Kara has consistently taken on difficult and intensive projects in her co-op work terms and glowing reviews from her employers are proof of how successful she has been.

Beyond her co-op work, Kara has said that leadership on campus has been the highlight of her university career and she has shown that through exemplary extra-curricular involvement. In her final year at Dalhousie she represented the Dalhousie Commerce Society as the Vice-President of Events and competed with Rowe JDCC in the Commerce Games. She’s competed in countless case competitions, been involved with numerous societies, and represented Dalhousie at multiple conferences across North America. She’s also held different employment with Dalhousie, working as a teaching assistant, in community engagement, and for the Dalplex. Kara also enjoys challenging herself athletically, and competed for the Dalhousie Varsity Rowing Team.

Kara has completed her undergrad with two prestigious distinctions: The Malcolm Mosher Memorial Scholarship for Academic Leadership, and the Christopher S. F. Mckee Award of Merit. The latter is given to a student with both exemplary grades and who has shown significant contribution to the university community. 

Kara wanted to make a difference during her time at Dalhousie, and has certainly worked hard to achieve her goals. She has always wanted to “seek out different ways to be involved and make a positive impact on those around her”. Her Top Co-op Award recognizes her success and demonstrates that she has done just that. (William Young)

Laure Nolte, Bachelor of Environmental Design Studies

Laure Nolte would tell you that it’s taken her a long and winding road to find her calling, yet the source of her biggest influence truly took shape when she was very young.

Growing up with a mother who had multiple sclerosis, Laure spent her formative years visiting long-term care facilities. It was there where she first witnessed the impact that physical space can have on an individual’s ability to thrive. Though unaware of it at the time, Laure had actually begun to discover the world of neuroscience for architecture — the study of human responses to the built environment.

“The spaces we inhabit have a big impact, and can actually reshape or rewire our brain,” she explains.

After completing a fine arts degree and working for a number of years, Laure eventually found her way to Dal’s Environmental Design Studies program, which she selected because of its mandatory co-op program. 

An early internship with SURGE gave her hands-on experience in the field and helped “plant the seeds” for further work directly related to architecture for neuroscience. In 2019, Laure won an international scholarship for her essay describing the moment she decided to become an architect. Her answer to that question? “Because I believe in the human body’s ability to heal in the right environments and I believe that through the power of architecture we can design healing environments.”

The RAIC scholarship enabled Laure to attend a conference on neuroscience for architecture in San Diego. The experience validated her choice in career path and gave her a resurgence of inspiration upon her return from the conference.

The work in regenerative-based practices that she was uncovering through her neuroscience research led her to find her work term job with Eric Stotts at Skin and Bones Building Design Workshop. Laure says the two shared a number of values, including an interest in architecture’s “phenomenal yet unrealized potential to positively participate in climate change mitigation.” 

The interest led to the development of “Supernatural Design Collective”, a student-run initiative working to incorporate ecological design principles and to shift architectural practices in response to climate change. 

Laure says her experience working with Eric helped validate her unique approach and allowed her to blend interdisciplinary perspectives in neuroscience, epidemiology and conservation biology within the spectrum of architectural experience.

Supernatural is working to bring climate change dialogue to the architectural profession, and integrating it within educational programs. Its manifesto is getting traction not only at Dal, but with other universities as well, and Laure has recently provided support in the launch of Supernatural McGill.

“I never thought I would win co-op student of the year. I don’t really fit into a mould. I push boundaries. I advocate for what I believe in. I’m honoured that the work I am doing is seen as valuable to the school and the community.”

”I’m going to keep believing in the work that I am doing. It’s very clear what energizes me, and I want to invest this boundless energy into a master’s program and delve deeper into these areas. I’m grateful for the co-op experience; it has shown me possibilities beyond the realm of which I’d have received in the classroom. It was incredibly valuable to my education.” (Allison Auld)

Kristen Bartmann, Master of Planning

It was a dream she didn’t even think possible, but through her time as a Dalhousie co-op student, Kristen Bartmann realized her passion to be involved with planning.

Originally from Uxbridge, Ontario, Kristen graduated from the University of Waterloo with a degree in psychology as an Academic All-Canadian, but the field wasn’t exactly a motivator. It was during an undergraduate trip to New Zealand that she realized that planning was a viable career path, something she had been fascinated with since childhood, and she resolved to pursue her new path. Kristen was drawn to Dalhousie because of its robust co-op program and used it to its full potential upon entering the master’s program.

During her summer co-op work term, Kristen worked with the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources in the Parks Division of Lands and Forestry. Her job involved a project to assess the various provincial camping parks and district offices under the department’s influence for accessibility, as it pertains to the Rick Hansen accessibility guidelines. She and a partner worked with a specially designed audit tool, producing two major reports outlining their findings and presenting site-specific recommendations for improving accessibility. She was able to present one of these reports to the Deputy Minister of Lands and Forestry — a great honour for Kristen — who shares her gratitude for the hands-on experience she received as it allowed her to learn more about the importance of environmental planning and to become more comfortable with unfamiliar concepts like environmental and accessibility planning.

Kristen’s time with environmental planning is far from over, even as completes her master’s degree. She is a regular volunteer with Halifax’s Ecology Action Centre, and she would have been heading to the Youth Summit Conference in Ottawa at the end of March, until travel restrictions made the trip impossible. Kristen’s schedule is a busy one, as she has also been a member of the Dalhousie women’s volleyball team, which travelled to Alberta for nationals just before the pandemic hit Canada. 

Although a visitor to Halifax, Kristen has found her future as a direct result of Dalhousie and her positive experience in the co-op program. She admits that her master’s program had a steep learning curve, one which her co-op experience was a great help with. “It’s really special to win this award,” she says, “[and] I’m glad my valuable experience translated into this honour.” Kristen hopes to one day work further with natural resources with something environmentally focused, or perhaps as a planner in a small or medium-sized municipality or town, “something where I could have my hands in everything.” (William Young)