"When I was at Dal": Alumni focus w/ Victoria Sheppard

- July 9, 2014

Victoria during her time with Mathare in Kenya. (Provided photo)
Victoria during her time with Mathare in Kenya. (Provided photo)

Alumni Focus: Victoria Sheppard
        •    Master of Environmental Studies, 2005
        •    Policy Analyst, Fisheries & Oceans Canada

Not only can a Dal degree inspire a student to explore the world, but it can also inspire someone change it. That’s exactly what happened with Victoria Sheppard (MES, 2005). After completing the Master of Environmental Studies program in 2005 and writing a thesis on marine conservation, Victoria decided to seek experience in the environmental field outside of Canada, and hoped to end up in Africa.

A CIDA internship with the International Institute for Sustainable Development led her to a particularized marine conservation internship with the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi, Kenya. As Victoria says, “It was a perfect fit.” She spent ten months in Nairobi, and has nothing but good things to say about her internship: “It was super interesting to apply what I learned domestically on the international scale. It was such an eye-opening experience, especially working at the UN.”

But it was Victoria’s volunteer experience in Mathare, one of the largest slum areas in Africa, that turned into the highlight of her time in Kenya. An acquaintance of hers was making a film about a youth group in Mathare, and she was invited to get involved with a primary school there.

“We were supposed to be volunteer teaching but really it was the kids teaching us all these interesting life lessons — I’m sure we got way more out of it than they ever got from us,” she says. “What was so inspiring was the joy, resilience, creativity, and hopefulness that nearly everybody I met from Mathare exuded.”

Victoria was so inspired by her work in Mathare that she and her Kenyan friends started the Canada-Mathare Education Trust upon her return to Canada. “When I left, I wanted to keep helping,” she says. Secondary school doesn’t come for free in Kenya, Victoria explains, but access to secondary education is seen as a “ticket out of poverty” for the children from Mathare lucky enough to go.

CMETrust has been operating since 2006, and focuses on raising money in Canada for kids in Mathare to attend secondary boarding schools in Kenya. The program has 45 students in school this year and about 40 alumni. CMETrust volunteers raise most of their money through fundraising events in their three chapter areas: Ottawa, Toronto, and Kitchener-Waterloo. Events include everything from cocktail parties, concerts, and euchre tournaments to speed dating events, trivia nights, and clothing swaps.

Victoria’s family and friends, including several Dal alumni, have helped the organization succeed, and the close-knit ties among the volunteers both in Canada and in Kenya help secure legitimacy and transparency. “It’s that personal connection that really ensures it,” she says. All the money donated is closely tracked, and Victoria stays in close contact with her volunteers in Kenya. She’s also been back to visit. It’s a “genuine partnership,” she says – and notes that she still receives the students’ report cards every year.

CMETrust “is a perfect example of small acts making huge ripples,” says Victoria. “We shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world’s problems; really it’s an example of every dollar making a difference; it’s only $600 to send a child to boarding school per year. Some alumni are in university now. Every little bit counts.”

For more information on the Canada-Mathare Education Trust and to find out how to get involved, check out CMETrust.org.

Why did you decide to attend Dal?

Actually it was my interactions with one of the professors at SRES [the School for Resource and Environmental Studies] when I was looking for master’s programs – he sold me.  [The professor was Dr. Martin Willison, who ended up being Victoria’s thesis advisor.] He was so welcoming and excited about the type of work I wanted to do. And I just got a really good feel from the school. For someone who came out of doing an undergrad in marine biology at Guelph, I loved that the MES program was a lot more open with courses in so many different subjects and I was going to get exposure to so many different things.

Where did you live while you were at Dal?

On Tower Road in a really hilarious 1960s apartment which has now been turned into condos. I loved it.

Where could you be found most often on campus while you were at Dal?

The Grad House!

Favourite place to study while at Dal?

By a sunny window in my apartment.

What was your biggest distraction while you were at Dal?

The Grad House! Also, because I lived in the South End, I did a lot of walks in Point Pleasant Park, but they weren’t really a distraction – they were essential for survival.

What was your favourite cafeteria food on campus?

The Grad House! I ate a lot of Grad House samosas. And the peanut butter balls from a random little place at Spring Garden and Robie St. (Does anyone remember the place?)

Did you have a nickname at Dal?

Everyone calls me Vic but it’s not a super-original nickname. There were four of us girls who used to hang out all the time and they used to call us “The Lump” which is not overly complimentary but we did spend an awful lot of time together. They also used to call me “Captain Safety” because I’m always the person on camping trips to say, “Be careful around the fire!” and “Do we have a first-aid kit?”

What is your favourite Dalhousie memory?

I was really involved in the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. One of the volunteers, and a SRES alumna, put on the ‘no-talent’ talent show for a few years and it was really funny. So participating in that as a fundraiser for CPAWS was my favourite memory.

How did your Dal experience prepare you for your current role?

It was beyond formative. My Dal experience completely changed my life. It opened my eyes to a career in environmental work; it exposed me to all the various options. Dal was huge for me. I met all kinds of interesting people, professors and colleagues and friends. I wouldn’t be the same person, I wouldn’t be in this job, if I hadn’t gone to Dal. It opened the doors to my future.

What do you see as the best thing about being a Dal alum?

SRES brings a group of students to Ottawa every year to expose them to government jobs, so I have helped organize their visits to DFO. I really like maintaining that connection with current SRES students – helping people scope out what they might want to do, talking about options.

Do you have any words of wisdom for current Dal students – something you wish you had known when you were a student?

To seek out and take as many opportunities as you possibly can now because you never know where they will lead you. Volunteer with different organizations, participate in Dal Dance, get involved in any on-campus activity. Just make the most of all the opportunities – I didn’t do that in undergrad but I did during my Master’s and had such a different and better experience and it opened all kinds of doors. Make the absolute most of your time at Dal because when you get out in the working world there isn’t quite as much opportunity. Campus is rich with opportunity.


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